Thursday, December 29, 2016

Christmas Bird Count(s) 2016

The annual Christmas Bird Count is a time honored tradition. I've been doing it one for the past few years. My territory is Pennypack park near the Environmental Center. I dutifully cover this territory year after year come rain or shine, warm or freezing cold. This year was of the rainy and cold variety. Needless to say, the day was pretty shitty. No birds. Cold  and wet. Peanut didn't even really have a good time. She was happy to call it quits by 1 PM. That was Saturday Dec 17th. The only photo that I managed was this miserable Cooper's Hawk.

Cooper's Hawk
Sunday was a totally different day. I offered to help Paul Guris cover his CBC area in Cape May and we had a much better day. Not only did we have better weather, but you can imagine that we had better birds too due to the habitat. We cover an area called Two Mile which is north of the Cape May inlet. It has beach and sea viewing, the inlet, marshes and also extends into Wildwood Crest. Peanut has a great day running the beach.

Here are a few Ruddy Turnstones that Peanut ran right past.

Ruddy Turnstones
We also found a these Conch shells washed up on the beach. I think they are really called Welks but whatever.

Welk Shells
Over in the marsh behind the Two Mile Restaurant, we found this very confiding Western Sandpiper. This bird sat still while we all took photographs. It didn't even fly away when Peanut ran past. I kind of felt bad for the bird - all alone on the marsh. It seemed out of sorts. I took a bajillion photos. This is the best one given the overcast lighting and rubble where the bird seemed most comfortable.

Western Sandpiper
We cruised through Wildwood Crest counting neighborhood birds along the way. Pigeons, Starlings, Mourning Doves and House Sparrows. Wait. Did that House Sparrow have yellow on it? Turn around. Let's give it another look. Sure enough, Andy and Paul had spotted a Dickcissel among the flock of House Sparrows at a feeder while driving 30 MPH down New Jersey Ave. Wow. These guys are good. Look at the subtle difference between the House Sparrow in the foreground and the Dickcissel sitting up on the bush.

Dickcissel and House Sparrow
The Dickcissel was the only one of it's species to be seen on the Cape May CBC. Sunday was like payback for my effort on Saturday. Yay.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Harvey's Hummer

Sometimes, hard work pays off. Harvey has spent a few years making his garden hospitable for butterflies and hummingbirds. He has Ruby-throated hummingbirds in his yard all summer. Sometimes a dozen or more are flying around until the end of September. Then, they all leave for the winter not to return until April. The yard seems empty after all of that activity. Until November 1st when a hummer flew around the yard. Harvey was elated to have a procrastinator for a few more days.

Hummers that show up on the east coast in November are generally not Ruby-throated. They are often western species that made a wrong turn and headed east rather than south. This is the case with Harvey's hummer. Problem is, nobody knows what species it is. Harvey has his ideas. He has invited experts to the house for their opinion. He has sent photos to expert hummingbird banders. Nobody can ID the bird. I finally had time to visit the yard on November 27th. Here is the hummer sitting in the butterfly bush.

It is now Christmas Eve and the little hummer is still in the yard. Harvey has a whole feeder thing erected on the porch. The feeders are hung on a ladder with a light bulb shining to keep the sugar water from freezing.

The hummer is having a ball. He/she sits on the ladder and has it's own food, shelter and adoring fans right there. We hope that he/she survives the winter so that we can see if the bird gets shiny feathers that may give us a clue to the identity.  He/she is in good hands.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Misses, Mud, and "The Chinese"

After a fantastic few days of birding in Texas, we still had one or two birds on the target list including Ringed Kingfisher. This is another one of those birds that is regularly found in Central America but rare in the U.S. I have seen a few on our various trips to Belize, Mexico and Honduras but not in the U.S. The bird is pretty regular in a few of the parks that border the Rio Grande river. Mary took us to one park on Saturday but we didn't see the bird.

We started the day at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. We were the second car in the parking lot. The other car was actually a van full of birders dressed in camouflage and carrying cameras with giant lenses. We found out that 2 were from China, 2 from Vancouver and 2 from Toronto - all Chinese birders on a tour of the US.

After a grueling and practically birdless 5 mile walk, we struck out on finding the Kingfisher. We did find a few Altamira Orioles to photograph.

Altamira Oriole
And found this Javelina wandering around the picnic area. He scurried away when he saw us.

This is Plain Chachalaca. We saw many on our trip but they are usually skulking around under the trees in the shade. This one came out into the sun briefly.

Plain Chachalaca
We struck out on the Ringed Kingfisher so we headed out to our next destination to see if we could find Mountain Plovers that had been reported in a farm field. We searched and scanned and searched and scanned but not a plover in sight. The field was so large that we couldn't see the other side. The plovers must be there! So we took the Jeep and followed the service road. We were surprised to find a covy of Bobwhite!

We also found a little patch of mud. The Jeep was stuck.

A few pushes and the Jeep was free. Lori was a muddy mess. And we still couldn't find the plovers. Strike two for the day.
Barbara had to be at the airport to fly to Denver so we gave up on the plover search and dropped her off at Harligen airport.

It was a longshot, but Lori and I decided to head 2 hours north to try to see Whooping Cranes. Why not? Whooping Cranes eluded us on our last trip to Texas. We showed up 2 days after they migrated north in April. Now, in November, we hoped to catch the first few as they arrived to spend the winter. Off we went in our muddy Jeep. The speed limit in Texas is 75 MPH and we were going faster to make it to Goose Island before sunset. We were passing a lot of cars and pickup trucks and one big van. Guess who was driving? The Chinese guy from this morning! We slowed down long enough to wave and then sped off again.

We arrived at Goose Island in time to search the area for Cranes and found a few Sandhill Cranes which are gray, but no Whooping Cranes which are white. We drove to the Visitor Center to ask about the Cranes. The guy told us to look in the campground which was ridiculous so we headed back to the field to try again. Guess who we ran into at the parking area? Yup. The Chinese guys. They drove up to see the Cranes too. We laughed and chatted with them for a few minutes and then headed out for one more chance to save the day's birding.

I spent some time photographing this very accommodating Meadowlark.

And then they flew in - 3 Whooping Cranes! The Chinese guys came running up because they heard the Whooping Cranes calling as they flew in. The birds settled into the back of the field for a few minutes and then lifted off again. The lighting was perfect.

Whooping Cranes
We averted Strike Three for the day and everyone was happy! Here are our Chinese friends celebrating. If you are going to Conowingo Dam next week, look for them there. They are on a whirlwind tour.

Chinese Birders

Monday, November 21, 2016

Target Birding in Texas

Why go birding at the bottom of Texas? Because there are birds there that aren't found in other areas of the United States. Check out the map. You can see how far south we are as compared to Mexico. Therefore, we can see birds that we may have never seen before - or - add birds that we've seen in Mexico or Belize or Honduras to our U.S. list. 

Rio Grande Valley
So far, I have 7 life birds for the trip and 8 other birds to add to my U.S. list. In the past, I have tried to see birds in many places on my own but when I told people that we were headed to Rio Grande Valley area, everyone said that we should hire a guide to get the specialty birds. Most of the people who suggested this know what they are talking about and they all said that we should hire Mary Gustafson for a day. I met Mary on the North Carolina pelagic trip (she was the other woman in the Mahi Mahi photo). She lives in Rio Grande Valley and is a professional guide. I contacted her and she agreed to take us around on Saturday.

Mary met us at our motel on Saturday morning. It was blowin' a gale outside but Mary was not deterred. I showed her my spreadsheet and she formulated a plan for the day. First stop - Estero Llano Park. We were surprised to find out that the park was actually an RV park that the State took over. There are only 2 campsites that are allowed to be occupied - they are reserved for volunteer "Park Hosts". We met one of the couples who spend the winter in the park showing visitors around. Very nice people from Ontario Canada. 

Mary took us to a place near the old bathhouse and found a Common Paraque - which is in the night jar family. They hunt insects in the evening and then roost on the ground during the day. They are very camouflaged against the leaf litter. We saw one in Honduras this past spring. 

Common Paraque
Inca Dove is another bird that camouflages pretty well. Here is one sitting on a gravel road in the park. You could almost miss her. They usually take off but this one let me get pretty close.  

Inca Dove
We also found Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet  in the RV part of the park thanks to the Park Hosts and Mary. This is a very secretive flycatcher so no photos. The park also has a lake which has some great ducks and a few Least Grebes which were great to see. 

Off to our next stop which was Frontera Audubon Center. This park is kind of in the middle of town but we really hit the birds here. One of our main target birds was Green Kingfisher. I photographed one in Honduras but wanted to see one in the U.S. Boy, did we get a show from not one, but two! Here is the female which perched on our side of the lake. The male perched on the other side of the lake but when she saw him, she chased him off! 

Green Kingfisher
We caught up with her again when she perched on the railing of the boardwalk. I snapped this just as she dove into the water after a fish. 

We worked really hard looking for another of our Life Bird targets - Olive Sparrow. We spent a fair amount of time looking at the bird feeders around the park waiting for one to slink out from the woods to grab a seed from the ground. Mary and I saw one for a split second but it never came out from under the brush again. We finally heard 2 in the woods later thanks to Mary and saw one  thanks to Barbara's keen eye. Again, no photo was possible. 

Thankfully, some birds were VERY photographable. This Black-crested Titmouse sat still long enough for a photo. 

And Great Kiskadees were all over the place. This one perched near the Green Kingfisher for a few minutes.
Great Kiskadee
Here are a gang of them on another pond. I wonder what they are all looking at. 

Mary took us to a great little lunch spot and then we headed out to find some other target birds. Some target birds aren't really what most people would call sexy, but I want to see those too. Blackbirds might fall into that category for some people. Mary took us out to a grain silo where we found flocks of blackbirds along the road. They go to the grain silos for an easy meal. And we go for easy birding. Here they are swirling around the warehouse. 

Bronzed Cowbird was on my target list. I saw them in Honduras, but not up close and personal like this. Here is a male all puffed up ready for his bath. Look at those devil eyes! You can see the bronze shimmer of his chest which gives him his name. 

Bronzed Cowbird
We also saw Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the flock. Here is a female getting a bath.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Mary wasn't done with us yet. Off we went to the town of McAllen where she knew we could find parrots and parakeets. We lucked into a flock of Red-crowned Parrots which flew across the highway. We exited and drove up a busy street and found Green Parakeets on the wire. Here are 2 snuggling. 

Green Parakeets
A stellar day despite the unrelenting wind and cold conditions. Thanks Mary! 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Boys Weekend in Texas

Calling this weekend "Boys Weekend" was not my idea. Lori came up with that term because 3 of us decided to go power birding in Rio Grande Valley which meant that the other 3 of us stayed home. Which 3 are in Texas? Me, Lori and Barbara. We wanted to go on a trip to find birds and not worry about eating or sleeping or any other comforts. The goal is to see birds!

So far, success. One day around Brownsville and Barbara has 5 life birds, Lori has 4, and I have 3. I also picked up a bunch of ABA birds too. We started the day at Sabal Palm Sanctuary which is right on the Mexican border.  The property was once a large plantation and now is a wildlife refuge.

Rabb Plantation House - Sabal Palm Sanctuary
Driving in south Texas is like being in a third world country sometimes. Little dirt roads, horses tied up in front yards, goats roaming around. We drove down the road to the park and found a Harris' Hawk sitting on a telephone pole.

Harris' Hawk
Of course, we pulled off the dirt road to take this photo. A few minutes later, a Texas State Trooper pulled up along side of our rental Jeep. "Um, are you ladies bird watching?" asked the 12 year old Trooper (OK, he wasn't really 12 years old but he was really young). We told him that we were looking at a hawk and making our way to the park to which he replied "If you see anyone running, call us" while making the phone call motion with his hands. This is border country for sure.

Don's Fence
Donald Trump sure works fast :-) Kidding. This is the border fence that already exists in this area. The guy at the park office told us that the fence runs along the Rio Grande river levee. The park actually sits between the fence and the Rio Grande river. Here I am pointing to Mexico.

Rio Grande River - Mexico
We saw some great birds at this park including Green Jays. There were many of them but only photographable at the bird feeder.

Green Jay
Here is a close up.

Green Jay
We also saw Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. This is the only one that sat long enough for a photo.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird
We also saw butterflies and a rare snake - the Speckled Racer. Barbara saw a little one slither under some palm fronds and then Lori found a 3 foot one slinking through the butterfly garden. We spent almost 4 hours at this park and then headed north to Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge. Everyone warned us about the pothole riddled road and the hunters but we went anyway. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant for lunch. YUM.

This is where it all went downhill. The lady at the Laguna Atascosa visitor center was really nice but most of the refuge was off limits due to hunting season and road repairs. We wandered around the trails near the main office when all of a sudden, the skies opened up and it poured rain for 45 minutes trapping us under a pavilion.

We drove out of the rain and headed to Port Isabel Road to find very rare Aplomado Falcons. These falcons were virtually extinct from the US until recent efforts by the US wildlife department re-introduced the birds to south Texas. They are slowly making a come back. The nice lady at the Visitor Center showed us where to look for them. We struck out at first, but finally found one bird sitting on the cell phone tower at about 4:15 PM - just as a rainbow appeared. Coincidence? I don't think so . . .

Rainbow Falcon
The falcon is the little dot on the left side of the tower next to the rainbow. Here is a zoomed in shot. Keep in mind that the tower was pretty far away and pretty tall.

Aplomado Falcon
Great way to end Day 1 of Boys Weekend. #boysweekend

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Birding Local

The local dog walking area has been slow but steady so far this fall. There haven't been a ton of birds but a few good sparrows have shown up. I spied a Lincoln's Sparrow a few weeks ago and then another one this week that I posed for me in a little tree. Cute little bird with thin streaks on a buffy chest.

Lincoln's Sparrow
Today, Marty and I headed out along the Delaware River to see what we could see. The weather was spectacular with bright blue sky and crisp light northwest winds. Perfect for raptor migration. Marty was hoping for Golden Eagle since he's never seen one in Philadelphia before. I wasn't hoping for anything in particular. We started the day with a great encounter with a Red-tailed Hawk at Glen Feord Mansion. This big bird flew in and perched right in front of us.

Red-tailed Hawk
Here she is spreading out.

Red-tailed Hawk
She was really focused on something in another tree. Maybe a squirrel.

Red-tailed Hawk
She finally took off for another tree. It is great when you can see the red tail that gives this bird it's name. Zoom in and look at those deadly talons. Wow.

Red-tailed Hawk
We headed over to "POD" - Pennypack on the Delaware to search for sparrows and other ground birds. I couldn't resist photographing the skyline with Tacony Bridge in the foreground.

But the raptors won the day there too. As if by design, Marty looked up and viola - Golden Eagle soaring just above our heads. You can tell it is a Golden Eagle by the big white patches on the wings and the white band on the tail. When the bird turned, we could even see the golden nape that gives this bird it's name. Unfortunately, I didn't get that shot.

Golden Eagle
I left Marty basking in the memory of the eagle and headed to Nifty Fifty's for a burger and fries. Yum.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Now, Back to the Birds

I have been sporadically birding over the past few weeks including in Florida. Connie and I came across these familiar birds. Here is a family of Sandhill Cranes along the main road in The Villages.

Sandhill Cranes
And this young Phoebe sat on the fence near the Dog Park with a bright blue roof behind it so naturally, I had to photograph it.

Eastern Phoebe
Back at home, Peanut and I came across this White-crowned Sparrow on our usual morning walk. It doesn't look like much but White-crowned Sparrows are uncommon so finding one is a bonus on any bird walk.
White-crowned Sparrow
And this Yellow-rumped Warbler showing off his yellow rump in Cape May this past weekend. Barbara and I met up with Marty and spent time at Higbee beach where we saw many birds. Mostly Robins, Goldfinches, Kinglets and Yellow-rumps which means that migration is winding down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Of course, these aren't spectacular birds or lifers but still nice to see.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Paulie's Quest

I know this is supposed to be a bird blog but sometimes, other creatures make their way in front of my camera lens and into my story line. This week, many of those creatures had wings but no feathers. I found these beauties in The Villages while visiting my mother on her birthday (Happy Birthday Mom). The first is Fiery Skipper. Fiery indeed. Bright orange!

Fiery Skipper
This guy caught my eye with his long tail. Remarkably, the species is Long-tailed Skipper. Go figure.
Long-tailed Skipper
 I didn't even notice that he had a bright green/teal body under those long wings.
Long-tailed Skipper
And then there was this eye catcher. It is a Gulf Fritillary. Zoom in to see the checkered eyeball.

Gulf Fritillary
 Hard to believe that this is the same butterfly seen from the top. Beautiful orange.
Gulf Fritillary
I was feeling pretty good about seeing all of these beautiful butterflies and headed back to my Mom's house where I found her neighbor Paulie there talking about the same thing - butterflies. He invited us to his house to check them out. We found this magnificent Monarch in his garden. There were others too.

Monarch Butterfly
And then we found out why. Seems Paulie has become a nursemaid in his retirement. The porch has incubators where caterpillars turn into butterflies. Here he is with the newest members of his Monarchy.

Close up of the cocoons with the new butterflies. The butterflies come out with shriveled up wings and hang on the cocoon for a few hours before the wings are ready for duty. Paulie lets them out once they are "dry".

New Monarchs
Here is Connie letting one out.
Paulie finds the caterpillars in gardens around the neighborhood and brings them inside where he feeds them milkweed until they form a cocoon, then releases the Monarchs to continue their life cycle. Pretty cool.