Birder's Eye View

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A cuckoo weekend

"Any day could be a special day, and probably will be, if we just go out and look." - Kenn Kaufman

This weekend has been extremely special -- and surprising -- in more ways than one.

First of all, I graduated. Yay! I'm off to college this fall. And secondly, I finally found a new bird to add to my year and life lists! It's been over a month since I've seen anything new, so I'm ecstatic.

I started hike guide training today and at the end of class, we took a hike out on one of the short trails. We had just started off, when I saw a strange bird fly behind a cypress tree.

"Oh, there's a cool bird over there," I pointed out, just having glimpsed it. It was brownish colored, with an unusually long, white-tipped tail and seemed to have dark coloration around its eyes.

At first, it was dismissed as a mourning dove, but I wasn't quite convinced.

"Wait a minute," said one of the other trainees. "That's a cuckoo!"

I knew it! I wished I had said something, but I didn't trust myself enough. Plus, I've been wanting to see a cuckoo so bad, I couldn't believe I had actually found one without even looking!

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo hopped further up into the trees, and unfortunately I wasn't able to get a clear picture. Nonetheless, there were enough witnesses there to confirm the sighting, and for me to add it as Year Bird #88.

Happy birding!

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Surprise!

I went on a nice long bird hike today and saw/heard a lot of common species: Carolina Wrens, N. Parulas, Tufted Titmice, Cardinals, etc. Unfortunately, I didn't see anything new, although I heard a few calls that I didn't recognize.

It was later in the afternoon, however, when I got home that I was treated to a surprise.

I was happily playing the piano, and my parakeet was sitting on the back of a chair beside me. He became restless. He flew up to to the window, and tried landing on the half-closed blinds. I shooed him off, and went back to playing.

He tried it again. Same thing, I shooed him off, fussed at him, and went back to playing. Again, he flew up to the window and peered out.

"What's out there, Tuki?" I asked, as he climbed onto my finger giving me an inquisitive look.

"Oooohh my GOD!!" Outside my window, not six feet away was a Red-shouldered Hawk standing under my birdfeeder. It had caught a lizard or some other unfortunate reptile.

I grabbed my camera, even though the batteries were pretty much dead, and started snapping pictures through the blinds. My parakeet flew back to his cage, and started preening his feathers.


This hawk was beautiful. It didn't even seem to notice the zoomed-in lens of my camera through the window.
I don't think I have ever seen a wild hawk so closely before. It is such a powerful looking bird; big and brawny, colorful, and intense-looking.


So... no new birds today, but I certainly got a new look at a bird I see all the time.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

And summer rolls in...

"Pay heed to the birds, and you'll know when summer has arrived."

With daily temperatures in the 90s, it seems that Mother Nature has settled down for a summer-long nap. The last of the migratory birds left my yard months ago, and even the few resident species are staying hidden out of the unforgiving sun.

The most active time of day is early morning and late evening, when the crepuscular animals come out, like the rabbit pictured, and a few birds.

I saw a Downy Woodpecker the other day in a neighbor's oak tree and I see Cardinals daily. They dominate the yard.

I've also been hearing a strange bird that I can't identify. At first I thought it sounded like a Black-throated Green Warbler, but the pattern was different and I wouldn't expect to hear one this time of year.

The best way I could describe it would be Zee Zeezoo zooZee. (zee's are higher pitch than zoo's) It has almost the same pitch and "voice" as the BTNW, but the pattern is different than I've heard before. I wonder if it's another bird making imitations (like a wren or mockingbird)?

With my luck, such as it is, I'm sure this bird is something common and obvious. That tends to happen to me a lot. My "newbieness" catches up with me, and I misidentify the easiest of birds. Oh well... what can I say? I have to learn somehow. Even if it's the hard and embarrassing way at times.

Life goes on.

Happy birding!

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

CMBS | Lessons Learned

"I believe in God, only I spell it Nature." – Frank Lloyd Wright
Lessons Learned from Hog Island


1. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, according to Dr. Sara Morris, a biology professor from Canisius University, it was clearly the egg that came first. In one of the most enlightening workshops I attended, Dr. Morris taught us about the evolution and anatomy of birds. By studying specimens (mounted birds, skeletons, wings, feathers, etc.), I gained a great understanding of the diversity of birds and how they evolved to suit their specific habitats.

2. You are responsible for your own learning. While I was aware of this to begin with, every night when we sat in the cabin with the councilors and talked about logistics for the following day, this point was driven home. They reminded us that no matter what we did or where we went, it was ultimately up to us to listen and learn from those around us.

3. Puffins. They can live up to 30 years!!! Who knew? (Sorry, random tidbit I found in my camp journal...)

4. Live in the moment. Whenever one of the campers asked what we would be doing the next day, the councilors would always say, "It's not tomorrow yet." The point being that we should enjoy the moment. This was hard for me at first, because I am so used to being ready for the next thing, but by the end of camp, I had literally lost track of time. But I liked it that way.

5. Open up to people; you'll be amazed at what you find. This was another hard one for me, because I'm naturally introverted. However, when I forced myself to come out of my "shell," I met the most amazing people. Both seasoned birders and newbies like me had some great insights and wonderful stories to share.

6. Every experience is what you make it. I stepped on to Hog Island with this theory, and stepped off with the theory confirmed. Some parts of the experience were not all great -- sharing two bathrooms with 14 other people; getting seasick; getting eaten alive by mosquitoes; and so on -- but I resolved to make the best of it, and I did.

7. If you want to fly, just open your wings. In Scott Weidensaul's talk "A Celebration of Flight," he started out by saying that if birds want to fly off a cliff, they just open their wings and go. But we, as people, cannot just step off that same cliff. He went on to talk about how birds use minute signs from the earth's magnetic field to migrate each year and what a beautiful thing it is to fly. To close his lecture, he said something like this: "Forget what I said before not being able to fly. You can. Just step off that cliff and open your wings."

Always the cynic, my first thought was of someone taking his advice literally and plummeting to the earth below that hypothetical cliff. But after a while, I began to understand what he meant. We all need to take a chance. We all need to step off that cliff, open our wings and fly.

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To close my "series" on the CMBS camp, I have made a video with my pictures from camp. Enjoy, and happy birding!

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Friday, June 13, 2008

CMBS | Part 6

"Not all is doom and gloom. We are beginning to understand the natural world and are gaining a reverence for life - all life." - Roger Tory Peterson

June 28-29, 2007: The final days

On our last full day of camp, we took a field trip to Medomak (pronounced med-AW-mik) Village with renowned birder Scott Weidensaul, whom I have mentioned before in this blog. Unfortunately, none of my pictures from that trip came out well, but the experience was unforgettable.

Mr. Weidensaul was full of amazing stories and boundless knowledge. He told us everything from how the lobstermen harvested their catch, to how J.J. Audubon began studying birds.

On this hike, we saw Cedar Waxwings, Purple Finches, a juvenile Bald Eagle, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and many other species. Although I wished the morning would never end, the afternoon would soon prove to be equally enlightening.

After lunch, we boarded one of Hog Island's boats (this one was a bit cushier than the Puffin V) and cruised out to Wreck Island, a Great Blue Heron rookery.

Once we were gathered on the rocky shore, we were instructed not to speak above a whisper. Theoretically, this island was so well protected that the herons had never even heard the sound of a human voice. We were not to disturb them, or leave a mark in any way, shape or form.

As we hiked up into the dense jungle-like interior of the island, I could have sworn I was stepping into "Jurrasic Park." The heavy sound of wings beat overhead, and, as we hiked silently into a clearing, I realized that every tree was filled with enormous herons and nests.

Every plant, tree, and rock was covered in chalky-white guano. The stench was powerful.

One of the experts who had come along brought his sound equipment, which consisted of a small sattelite-dish type thing, and headphones. We took turns putting on the headphones, and the forest sounds were amplified.

Baby herons peeked out from gargantuan nests above our heads, and adult birds landed clumsily in the thick canopy, hardly seeming to notice us. It was such a profound experience to be walking on one of the few truly wild, nearly-untouched pieces of wilderness on earth.

After an outdoor picnic and last-day-of-camp celebration, we tallied up our bird lists (109 species!) and enjoyed our last night on Hog Island.

To my surprise, coming home actually gave me a culture shock. I had seen hints of myself becoming a birder throughout the week, when I was thrust back into my old environment, I suddenly felt so out of place.

Not one to be easily deterred though, I am proud to say that I have kept up birding, if not as successfully as in Maine but certainly still having as much fun.

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You'll be glad to know that this is my second-to-the-last post about CMBS camp, and I will bore you with only one more post in a couple days... CMBS: Lessons Learned

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CMBS | Part 5

β€œIt is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” - Charles Darwin

Day 4: June 27, 2007


When the sun rose in the early hours of my fourth morning on Hog Island, it didn't last for long. As we set out on the Puffin V, the fair skies were obscured by a thick blanket of storm clouds. Nonetheless, like good, hardcore birders, we set out to sea, destined for Eastern Egg Rock Island.

The boat ride was fun at first. It was kind of like a roller coaster. Only wetter. And cold. The boat would pitch up into the air, and then slide down again on the waves, tickling the pit of your stomach.

Near the islands, we could see Harbor Seals and porpoises, and but further out, we saw little more than huge, rolling waves.

When we arrived at Eastern Egg Rock we were greeted by a pair of Razorbills, flying past the boat. There seemed to be hundreds of terns, as well, flocking the island. I would have given anything to go ashore, but unfortunately, we weren't aloud.

Eastern Egg Rock is the southern-most breeding ground for Atlantic Puffins in the US. A Puffin colony was established there in the 1970s, thanks to Project Puffin, an effort to restore the bird's population in Maine.

In the 1981, there were only 4 breeding pairs on the island, but when I was there in 2007, the population had increased to 90 pairs. Talk about a success!

The Atlantic Puffins were not as easy to spot as the other birds. They're much smaller than you'd expect, if you've never seen one before, and rather difficult to photograph without a good camera.

After circling the island a couple times, we proceeded to a nearby gull breeding ground, known as Ross Island. This little piece of land was covered -- and I mean covered -- in gulls. Hundreds of them.
As I hiked up the rocky shore with the other campers and ornithologists, I realized that gulls nests were built in every nook an cranny on the ground.

We got to hold a few chicks, some of which were only days old. The experience was mindboggling; gulls flocked to the skies and chicks peered out from beneath the rocks around which we were standing.

Later on that day, we took a fieldtrip to the mainland to visit the Clarry Hill Blueberry barrens. Here, we hoped to see Upland Sandpipers, which were apparently often sighted on the rock walls that separated the blueberry fields.

We hiked up a gently slanted hill, but soon after our arrival, a thunderstorm struck with full force. We hightailed it back to the van and waited it out. Lightning struck so close by at one point, that it crackled deafeningly almost before we saw it strike.

And then just like that, the skies cleared to a pristine, periwinkle blue. We piled out of the van again, binoculars and spotting scopes in tow.

While we never saw the Upland Sandpiper, we were serenaded by a few nearby Savannah Sparrows perching on the rock walls.

What a day to remember! Through seasickness and storms, we managed to see some great birds and have some once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

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Check back in a couple days for Part 6: The Last Day

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

CMBS | Part 4

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." ~John Muir

Day 3: June 26, 2007
We awoke a little bit after dawn on the fourth day of camp, and quickly packed our lunch (more of Chef Janii's incredible food) before a 2 1/2 hour drive to Acadia National Park.

I should note here that this was possibly the hottest day EVER in midcoast Maine. The temperatures were in the 90s, and, packed in a 15-passenger van with no a/c turned out to be an ordeal.

Nonetheless, the experience turned out to be one of the most fun of the entire camp.

While we spent the entire day here birding, the most memorable moment took place below the Precipice at Cadillac Mountain.

We were meeting with a park ranger, and as she started explaining about their behavior, someone stood up and pointed.

There was a flurry excitement, and seconds later, we were all standing in a group with our binoculars pointed toward the mountain.

I couldn't see what they were all looking for at first, but then I caught it just as the bird swooped down. A Peregrine Falcon was divebombing a vulture!

The vulture flew away, but the falcon swooped up to a small crevasse in the precipice. The ranger and councilors quickly set the spotting scopes up, and we were able to get a fairly clear view of the magnificent bird of prey.

The only sad part about seeing the falcon was that there were only a few nesting pairs in Acadia, and their nests had been destroyed by recent earthquakes. So unfortunately, there would be no new Peregrines that year in Acadia.

After spending the rest of the day at the park, and birding our little hearts out, we stopped by the nature center before leaving.

As we stood on the trail looking up into some trees (come to think of it, I spent that entire week standing on trails looking up at trees... but anyhow..) a sudden noise behind us caused everyone to turn around.

A flock of American Woodcocks had been startled, and were all waddling away! They were extremly hard to photograph, but funny looking birds. Some were almost close enough to touch, but they ran away on nimble legs, glancing nervously around.

And thus, my day at Acadia came to a close. We played birding games in the 2 hour ride back to the island, and returned to our cabin well after bed time.

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Check back in a few days for Part 5: Storms, Gulls, and Puffins.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

CMBS | Part 3

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees..."
- John Muir

On the second day of the Coastal Maine Bird Studies camp, we packed our lunch and took a field trip to Morse Mountain and Seawall Beach, near Phippsburg, ME.

This area was extremely diverse in habitat. As we hiked up the mountain trail, we passed through balsam pine forest, hot muggy swamps, and rocky, wooded terrain. And, just on the other side of the mountain was Seawall Beach, which I will get to later.

One of the first birds I saw in this park was a lifer -- a Glossy Ibis! We also saw Snowy Egrets, Red-winged Blackbirds, and many species of warbler.

The hike was long, and, although it was the only second day of camp, I had completely lost track of time.

I was so immersed in the experience, in being outdoors, in seeing so many new sights, time had no meaning. Accept when my legs began to ache and the mosquitos whined insistantly in my ears.

When we reached the peak of the mountain, the view was breathtaking.
We sat on the flat rocks to rest, setting down our spotting scopes and other equipment.

A Dark-eyed Junco sat at the top of a scraggly pine tree to my left, singing loud and clear. This was another life bird for me, and a bird I would see often in the coming days.

We then hiked halfway down the mountain and then drove to Seawall Beach, a striking coastal area where we hoped to see Piping Plovers and Northern Gannets.

We spent a good amount of time here, and indeed, found our Piping Plovers. They scuttled about here and there, and were extremely hard to see, even through the spotting scopes.

Cute as these birds were, though, one of my fondest memories is of watching the Northern Gannets from the beach.

When someone spotted the seabird, we set up the scopes, and gathered around to witness the bird's aerial acrobatics as it hurled itself into the waves.

This was one of the first moments I really connected with my "inner birder." It was amazing to be standing there with those other kids as they all gasped and Oooed and Ahhed and were just as captivated by the experience as I was.

It's funny how a small, insignificant moment as that could be such a turning point, the moment when everything just... clicks.

***

Check back in a couple days to read about a Peregrine Falcon!

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Happy happy happy!

I do believe -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- I just got a picture of a Great-crested Flycatcher!

Finally!! I was just sitting here at my desk, when I heard "Rrrreep!" I glanced over, to see if it was in the tree, and lo and behold, it was sitting RIGHT outside my window above the birdfeeder.

By some great miracle, I actually had my camera next to me, and I managed to snap the picture moments before the bird took off.

Okay. I am happy. Very happy. I've been wanting to get a picture of this bird since the moment I first glimpsed it a couple months ago.

Happy, happy birding!

CMBS | Part 2

"Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land."
Aldo Leopold

It was still the first day of the Coastal Maine Bird Studies camp. After a session of learning the birding basics with Scott Weidensaul, we all headed inside the dining hall for a breakfast of pancakes and fruit at 7am.

Before I got any further, I must note the amazing, fantastic, delicious, delectable, scrumptious food we were served at camp, all cooked by Chef Janii Laberge and the student assistants. It was honestly the best food I have ever tasted, and considering he was cooking for probably close to 50 people 3 times a day, the feat was nothing less than mindboggling. :-)

After breakfast, we quickly regrouped outside the Crow's Nest and were introduced to Kenn Kafman and his wife.

In my diary that night, I described the events in detail:

"We started down the trail outside our cabin, and it began to rain. It was very cold.

"All discomforts were soon forgotten however, as the landscape opened up into an unreal forest. ...[W]e trekked along the shoreline over boulders and moss-lined trails, listening and watching in the trees."

Mr. Kaufman could pick out any bird through the symphony of forest sounds. At this point, I was still overwhelmed by everything, and all the noises seemed to blend together when I listened.

I tried cupping my hand behind my ears, as he did, and slowly, I began to understand how to pick out each individual call.

After a long time of hiking (I totally lost track of time!), we came to the cabin where the original owners of Hog Island had lived. The house was left almost as it had been when the owners moved away. It was dilapidated and cobbled together, but there were still decorations left on the walls and a few old objects here and there.

After leaving the old house, we trekked through the bogs of Hog Island where we promptly became a mosquito buffet. It was not hot and damp and the air shimmered and hummed with mosquitoes, more than I have ever seen in my entire life of living Florida.

Regardless, we did see some great birds, wildlife and plantlife. The picture to the left is of a carnivorous pitcher plant we found. Also in the bog, Mrs. Kaufman caught a small, lanky spider with an orange abdomen. When she turned it upside down, it produced the scent of oranges!

Ah, but I have neglected to mention the birds we saw. By the end of the three-hour hike, I had added a White-winged Crossbill, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-eyed Vireo, half a dozen species of Warbler, and many other birds to my life list.

Considering I had never really gone "birding" before, it was a huge learning curb and an unforgettable experience.

***

Check back in a couple days for Day 2: Mountains and Beaches.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

CMBS | Part 1

"In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them." - Aldo Leopold

I mentioned back in the beginning of May that this month, June, would mark my one-year "anniversary" of "officially" becoming a birder. Now, I use all these words very loosely, mainly because I feel I have been a birder all my life and just didn't know it.

But last year, all of that changed. I owe everything to the Clearwater Audubon Society for awarding me a scholarship to the Coastal Maine Bird Studies (CMBS) camp on Maine Audubon's Hog Island.

And so, with great appreciation for all the people who made this adventure possible for me, I will be posting pictures and reflections from the camp throughout this month. I will start today by looking back on my first impressions of Hog Island.

Day 1: June 24th, 2007

I hear the waves hitting the shore, out in the blackness through my open window, I wrote in my diary the first night on Hog Island.

I was sitting in the Crow's Nest with 12 other high school students from around the country. There were 10 boys and only 3 girls, counting myself. The boys got the main room of the cabin, and the rest of us got a little room in the back looking east out over the water.

Night time on an island in Maine is no quieter than it is in Florida. But it is far more peaceful. The windows of the Crow's Nest were open 24/7, and at night when the temperature dropped, the chilly wind brought with it the mournful cry of the loons.

On my first full day on Hog Island, the sun rose at 4:30am. I might have slept through the glaring light coming in my bedside window, but I was awaken by something slightly more... surprising.

Amidst groan of motorboats and the splashing ashore of their waves, the lobstermen who harvested their catch each morning (I would soon learn) shouted to each other a flurry of colorful curse words.

Knowing I would never get back to sleep hearing what I had just heard through my open window, I got dressed and made my way out for the early morning bird walk in the common area of camp.

I was delegated to Scott Weidensaul's group with the other "beginners." After teaching us proper binocular use and whatnot, he proceeded to point out three different species of Terns (which I admit, at the time all looked identical to me) and multiple species of Gulls.

I was able to see the difference in the Gulls, but I had really yet to grasp this whole "birding" thing. Fake it 'til you make it, I kept thinking to myself. I knew enough about ecology and the environment so as not to look like a total naif, but it would still take another couple days of birding before it finally clicked.

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Check back in a day or so to read what happened next! (Hint: it involves hiking with a well-known birder...)

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