Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Rest of the Crazy Weekend

As I said in the last post, this past weekend was filled with birding events. We started on Friday night with a warbler workshop. The authors of The Warbler Guide - Scott Whittle and Tom McPherson presented a workshop at John Heinz Refuge about identifying warblers by their song. It was a good presentation. 80 people attended.  Some of us met at Belleplain State Park in Cape May County on Saturday morning for the second part of the workshop. Scott and Tom took us through the park listening for warblers. We used some of the skills that we learned to identify the birds. It went pretty well although there weren't many varieties of warblers in the woods yet. I think it is still too early for them. We saw and heard a ton of Black and White Warblers. This one caught a bug for breakfast.

Black & White Warbler with bug
 We also found this little toad which is kind of cute.

Toad - Belleplain State Forest
After the field trip on Sat, I went to Delran NJ to count Great Blue Heron nests. I had  sites to go to. The first one was totally clear cut for a new housing development - no birds there. The second spot was behind someone's house. I knocked on the door and the homeowner gave me permission to go slogging through the swamp to look for nests. No nests there either. The third location was a little island in the Delaware River just off of Dredge Harbor. Success! I counted 62 nests in the trees and saw 25 Great Blue Herons either sitting on or near a nest.  Whew, I was starting to think I wouldn't get to count any. You can kind of see the nests in the trees.

Amico Island Heron Nests
This Cooper's Hawk flew over head with half of a meal still in it's talons. You can see a little bird foot dragging behind the wing. Yuck, but the hawk has to eat too.

Cooper's Hawk with lunch
As part of the workshop series, the DVOC asked me to help lead a bird walk at John Heinz Refuge (Tinicum) on Sunday. I was glad that they decided to have me, Patty and Steve lead a photo group. That is more up my alley than trying to identify a ton of birds for birders.  We had a small but enthusiastic group. We saw some good birds and I think they had fun. We found some easy to photograph birds like these swallows.
Tree Swallow

Barn Swallow
We photographed some birds in the air like this Osprey and Turkey Vulture.

Osprey with nesting materials

Turkey Vulture
We photographed some signing birds like this wren and blackbird.
House Wren

Rusty Blackbird
And we also tried to photograph little flitty birds in trees. This is the most difficult. The first photo is Blue-gray Gnatcatcher sitting on her new nest. Look at how she puts her long tail straight up in the air since it doesn't fit inside the nest.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - on nest
Here is one of the many Yellow Warblers that we saw along the trail. They were flying around so fast that we hardly had a chance to snap a photo. This guy cooperated for a few minutes.

Yellow Warbler
I think some of the group learned a few techniques, like move to another position if the bird is blocked by a branch and move closer if possible. Here is Patty imparting some wisdom.

Photo group - Tinicum
All in all it was a good day. And then I found the owls which was the icing on the cake.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fun With Owls

This weekend was packed with major birding events. It started on Friday night with a Warbler Workshop followed by a field trip to Belleplain State Park on Saturday and another field trip on Sunday to Tinicum. I'll tell you all about that in the next post. This post is all about what happened after the big weekend when I was supposed to be casually visiting my friends in Elkins Park. I borrowed a sump pump from Tim so that I could drain and clean the pond - which I did in between all of the bird events.

I stopped over to Tim and Amy's around 6 PM. I was telling them about how we saw a Great Horned Owl nest on our field trip. Amy said that she had never seen an owl. Now, I know that they have owls in their neighborhood because I've heard them hooting. Just then, we heard a bunch of crows going crazy. I boldly said - you wanna see an owl? We walked to the end of the street in the direction of the crows and there is was - an adult Great Horned Owl being harassed.  Man, I looked like a genius! Luckily, Barbara's scope was in the back of the car, so I set it up on the sidewalk so that Amy could get a good look at the owl.

Then I remembered that I had the iPhone adaptor, so we took some video to show to Evelyn (HH) who was preparing dinner for the gang. Click on the video to play it.

You can imagine that 3 people with a spotting scope on the sidewalk in Elkins Park PA would draw some attention. It did. We showed about a dozen people the owl as they walked past with dogs and kids. People stopped their car to ask us what we were doing.  It was fun to show the kids an owl. But it got even more fun when we found the nest hole with a fluffy baby owl sitting in it!

The baby was a crowd-pleaser for sure. The neighborhood kids couldn't get enough of the owlet. The dads couldn't get enough of the scope with the iPhone attachment. Here is a photo of both.

Enthusiastic Owl Watchers - Elkins Park PA
The baby never did take his first flight while we were there. He wanted to. He should be out of the nest today. I'm going back to check on them and will keep you posted. Thanks again to Barbara for allowing me to keep the scope in my car. This would have never been a success without it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Texas Round Up

Final Texas post. We made it back to Philly last night after a long day of traveling. Here are a few final photos from the trip. Here are a few non-avian critters. This butterfly landed on the hood of the van while we were at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

This one is a little more icky. A Diamondbacked Water Snake with half his lunch still hanging out of his mouth. It looks like lunch was a perch.

Diamondback Water Snake - with fish
I walked right past this iconic critter of the south - the Armadillo. Lori spotted it digging for ants just off the trail. This is a life critter for me and really cute.

Believe it or not, the trip included non-birding activities. The girls took a trail ride one day that I will let them tell you all about. I didn't go. Horses and me don't mix. I think I inherited that from my mother.

On the trail
Connie and I spent the hour and a half that they were riding in the antique shops in the local town. I thought they might want an ice cold beer after the ride. They appreciated every drop!

Ice Cold Beers!
We also went to Austin for a day so that Di and Barbara could visit a friend who moved there. The rest of us did some sight seeing. One of the sites not to be missed is the Congress Ave Bridge which crosses the river right in the middle of town. There is nothing unusual or spectacular about the bridge itself except at dusk when over a million Mexican Free-tailed Bats come pouring out of it. This is a nightly occurrence that is attended by hundreds of people. This video is just a snippet. It went on like this for 20 minutes.

After the bat cave - we made the long drive back to San Antonio but not before stopping at the famous "Buc-ees" rest stop. We had a rundown of Buc-ees attractions from the owner of Warbler Woods (don't ask). She told us all about the private bathroom stalls, and how you can order a sandwich from a computer, and get gas, and they have all kinds of snacks. It all sounded like a Wawa to us. We giggled until we actually saw the place. It is HUGE. They have over 120 gas pumps and the 3rd cleanest bathrooms in the country (now I want to see #1 and #2). Here is a shot of the gas pumps.

Buc-ees Gas Pumps
Here is a shot of about 1/4 of the stalls in the Lades Restroom. You really get an individual stall.

Buc-ees Bathroom
Oh, you must ask Barbara about her new Detroit Redwing friend and the written warning she got after leaving Buc-ees without turning on the headlights to the van.

Detroit Redwings fan (left), Flyers fan (right)
A few more bird photos round out the trip. The first is a Bewick's Wren that popped up to scold me when I was waiting for the girls to get mounted up on the horses.

Bewick's Wren
Here is an Eastern Phoebe waiting for us to move off of the deck at a local Nature Center so that she could feed the babies in the nest that she built above the door.

Eastern Phoebe
There are Crested Caracara all over Texas. This one hung out on a utility pole at Mitchell Lake.

Crested Caracara
Another encounter with one of our target birds on our last day and the best photo of them all.

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Final photo is female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in flight - unmistakable!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
We rounded out the trip with 162 species. No bad.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Corpus Christi - Aransas Area

Texas is a big state. Texan's like to tell you that its the largest state, but Alaskans take exception to that. In fact, if you cut Alaska into 3 pieces, Texas is still only the 4th largest state. All of that being said, Texas is still a big state. We drove for hours to get to some of the places that you have been reading about but somehow it doesn't seem that far when you look at the map. I guess it's all relative. For instance, it took us 2.5 hours to get to Blucher Park. We left there and went out onto the barrier islands - Padre to the south and Mustang to the north of the bridge. We saw some usual suspects like this Black-bellied Plover along the back bay.

Black-bellied Plover - Texas
We also saw some not-so-usual birds - another target species for me - the Franklin's Gull. I had no idea that we would see them in flocks. I kind of expected one here and one there. But they were very obvious in flight. They look almost exactly like our Laughing Gulls only they have different wing pattern at the tip and they also look pinkish when you see them flying. Check it out.
Franklin's Gulls - Texas
 This is a good comparison shot for those who care. The Franklin's Gull is closest and farthest. The Laughing Gull in the one over to the right. Can you tell the difference?
Franklin's and Laughing Gulls - Texas
We went out to the coast hoping for some shorebirds or other gulls but all we saw was wind and whitecaps.
Windy Beach - Padre Island
Thanks goodness the park rangers came along. They told us to go to Port Aransas for lunch and take the Ferry over to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Here we are at Virginia's Bar and Grill where we had lunch. It was terrific.
Bird Nerds at lunch
This is the FREE ferry! It took all of 5 minutes to get to the other side. We have no idea why they don't just build a bridge.

Ferry Ride
Aransas NWR was a bust. We were hoping for Whooping Cranes but we didn't see any. The sign at the Visitor Center told the tale - they leave in Mid April. We were there on April 15th. Sigh. We were delightfully surprised to see Upland Sandpipers along the road into the park. In fact, we counted 16 of them. It was difficult to get a good shot since they would fly away if we got out of the car. They are unmistakable to identify since they are one of the very few shorebirds that is found in grassy fields. Birders call them "Uppies".They are rare in our area as they prefer open grasslands. Lakehurst Naval Airstation in NJ is the closest place to see them.

Upland Sandpiper - Aransas Texas
Of course, you can't throw a stone in South Texas without hitting a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. They were everywhere along our drive. I can't help but snap photos of them.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
After the Whooping Cranes leave, Aransas is kind of empty. We climbed the observation tower anyway. We asked a lady to take our photo. She added her thumb to the top left corner. . .

Bird Nerds - observing nothing
We got a few species to add to the Texas list - Least Bittern and Sora - both calling from the Alligator Pond. It was a long drive back to San Antonio.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Frau Blucher

Did you whinny like a horse when you read that title? If not, you should rent the movie - Young Frankenstein. It's a star-studded Mel Brooks classic where Cloris Leachman plays Frau Blucher. Every tiime someone mentions her name, some off-screen horses whinny.  What does this have to do with Texas or birding you ask? Well, I'll tell you.

The "Frau" part has to do with the fact that every town in Texas seems to have a German name or have been settled by Germans. You can get Weinerschnitzel just about as many places as you can get BBQ or Tacos down here. We thought that was weird. The "Blucher" part has to do with the little city park that we found in Corpus Christi that turned out to be the best, most concentrated birding of the entire trip. The park is about 2 blocks square - not even 2 acres in size but it sure packs in the birds.

We headed to Corpus Christi on Tuesday in search of migrants. Corpus Christi is positioned right along the Gulf Coast and is the first bit of land that migrating birds hit when coming north from Mexico if they are using the Central Flyway route - similar to how they use Higbee Beach in Cape May as a stop after crossing the Delaware Bay (only bigger).  We were not disappointed. We are here in the early part of migration, so we didn't get a ton of species but we did get our next target bird - Swainson's Warbler. Swainson's Warbler is a secretive warbler that skulks around the forest floor and is only seen in the south. We met a local guy who told us where to look for them in the park and viola!

Swainson's Warbler - Corpus Christi
I know its not much to look at, but it is one of those birds that is really hard to see and even harder to photograph. I had to set the camera to 1600 ISO just to get these shots.

Swainson's Warbler
We also saw alot of other warblers but the big show for everyone were the Chuck-will-widows which were flying around our heads and perching in the trees. "Chucks" are nighjars which hunt at night and roost during the day. They are so well camouflaged that you rarely see one even if you walk right past one. Di found this one perched in a Palmetto tree while we were looking for a different bird.

Di's Chuck-wills-widow
They were being spooked by the birders (inadverdently) and would fly around the park at eye level. They have a huge wingspan (over 2 feet) and even brushed Tara and Barbara's heads with their wings as they flew past. They are quite agile for being such big birds. This one perched very close to me and watched as I walked past. You rarely get to see their eyes.

Chuck-wills-widow - Corpus Christi
Many other birds were seen in the park. Some are common birds in our area such as these Orioles - Baltimore and Orchard.

Baltimore Oriole
Orchard Oriole
Another skulker - the Kentucky Warbler was seen well as it walked across the path in front of me. That doesn't happen in New Jersey.

Kentucky Warbler
And then there were the exotic species that we don't get in our area. This is Couch's Kingbird. They are pretty big flycatchers which are native to the south.

Couch's Kingbird - Corpus Christi
Another bird in that family is Great Kiskadee. This is a huge bird for a flycatcher. They have a distinctive pattern on their heads and are pretty loud. You can't miss it unless it wants to hide. This particular bird had a nest nearby but it put on a show for us anyway.

Great Kiskadee - Corpus Christi
Another bird that nests at Blucher Park is this Golden-fronted Woodpecker. It is very similar to our Red-bellied Woodpecker except that it has gold where ours has red.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Blucher Park was a hit but we decided to leave around 10:45 in order to see some other sites out along the coast. More about that later.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Day Got Better

We saw a few other "good" birds at Lost Maples including this Yellow-throated Warbler. We even saw the nest but I didn't get a photo of that.

Yellow-throated Warber - Lost Maples
After being  blasted by the wind on the trail at Lost Maples, we headed back down to the bird blind. We arrived just in time to meet the "Bird Hosts" who were filling the feeders. Campgrounds often have "Hosts" - people who camp there alot and volunteer to be available for questions, organize campground activities, etc. The "Hosts" at Lost Maples do that plus they lead bird walks and volunteer to fill the feeders etc. Our Hosts were Les and Jane. They were really friendly and obviously knew what birds we were looking for. We told them about our success with Golden-cheeked Warbler and asked about Black-capped Vireo. We were bummed when Les told us that we would have to hike really far in the park and would probably strike out due to the wind. Crap.

Our mood lightened when Les asked us if we had time to go to another park which would give us a better shot at the Vireo and had multiple bird blinds. He gave us directions and told us to stop by their campsite on our way out to see the Lazuli Bunting which was at their feeder. Lazuli Bunting at a feeder - wow. I want  you to notice the angle of the platform feeder in the photo. It was rocking like a swing set. This is the best photo that I could get. The rest of the photos show the bottom of the feeder. It was really windy.

Lazuli Bunting - Lost Maples
So, off we went to Llano River State Park in Junction Texas. It took us over an hour to get there but it was worth it right away. We found the first bird blind and saw a show - mostly sparrows but also other "good" birds. Here are a few. The first is Black-throated Sparrow -a very handsome bird.

Black-throated Sparrow - Llano River SP
Here are Lark Sparrows. They look like they are wearing a helmet. We get a few of these in our area in the fall but they don't have the helmet.

Lark Sparrows
In fact, the feeders and water at the bird blind worked so well that I got a photo with 4 different sparrow species in it. You will have to zoom in to see the birds - Black-throated, Lark, Lincoln's and White-crowned.

Next is Cedar Waxwing at the bird bath. We have these birds in our area but we rarely see them so close. They must really need the water since Texas is so dry.

Cedar Waxwing - Llano River SP
This is a male Painted Bunting. This is one of those birds that you see in the Field Guide and go "no way does a bird look like that" but then you see one and it does.

Painted Bunting - Llano River SP
We left the bird blind and headed to the Visitor's Center. The staff directed us to the best area for our target - Black-capped Vireo. You have to understand that I have wanted to see one of these ever since I saw one in my first field guide. It's the white spectacles that really set it apart from other birds. Lori and I studied the call but thankfully, we ran into another group of birders along the trail who had already found one of the birds.

Black-capped Vireo
Randy is a local guy from Junction. He pointed out the bird and also showed us a Black-capped Vireo nest! Unbelievable. Oh, and he also pointed out a Zone-tailed Hawk soaring overhead. Bonus!

Zone-tailed Hawk
We ended up having a great day. We got 3 target species and even had lunch at an authentic Texas BBQ joint called Cooper's.

Bird Nerds at the BBQ
We are really getting a kick out of the Texans - they fly that state flag everywhere. If you see a US flag, you also see the Lone Star.