Birder's Eye View

Monday, May 25, 2009

Traveler or Tourist?

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” -G.K. Chesterton

I've had traveling on the mind a lot lately, as we've been planning our expedition to SD in August.

If there's one thing my family does well together, it's travel. My mother has become the connoisseur rough-itinerary-writer and trip-planner over the years, and my father, captain of the road and master of the GPS.

As for the kids, well, I guess you could say we're support crew. We tend to jump in wherever needed, help plan, navigate, and so on. Like all families we have our issues, but if I do say so myself, we are mighty good travelers. :-)

All of our trips have mishaps. My main memory of the our roadtrip in the Southwest is of being altitude sick. In CA, we got lost in the Sierra Nevadas on an empty tank of gas (by the time we found our way back to the highway, we literally rolled downhill all the way to the gas station).

I guess what's so great about traveling with my family is that even when we are lost, having disagreements, or don't know where we're going, we always manage to see some amazing things. Like the quote above, we see what we see, and not always what we've actually come to see.

The small amount of traveling I have done by myself has led me to an interesting conclusion. It seems that while it is easier to be a traveler by yourself, the experience is a thousand times more meaningful when you have someone with whom to share it.

With that food for thought, I have gone completely off-topic from birding. But not for long!

On Monday, at the local nature park, a Cooper's Hawk swooped down right in front of me, going after a lizard. It crashed into the tree (scaring me half to death!), clawed up and down for a second, and when it failed to grab the anole, it flew up to a branch.

I ripped open my camera bag and started taking pictures. It was backlit by early morning sunlight, but I managed to get a couple good shots before it let out a sharp call and flew away.

That makes year bird #105.

Until next time,

Happy birding!

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Monday, May 18, 2009

A wild Greater Sandplover chase, part 2

This is Part II. If you haven't already done so, please read Part I first! :-)
Dave, Wes, and Erik wanted to know what other birds I needed for my list. I didn't have it with me (nor was I prepared for their generous offer to help me find whatever birds I needed!), so we decided to go after a Painted Bunting, since there were supposed to be a lot of them in the area.

As we drove down a narrow little road towards an old plantation, we stopped in front of a house with a plethora of feeders around it. There were tons of peacocks in the yard, but no buntings as far as we could tell. As we were inspecting the feeders from a distance with our binoculars, the homeowner came out and invited us into his back yard.

He said he had tons of Painted Buntings and other species that visited his feeders, but they come and go randomly (as birds often do). We didn't find any at his house, but when he learned we had been over to see the Greater Sandplover, he gave us an article about it that had come out in his local newspaper. He also showed us all of his peacocks (there were probably 20 or more strutting around on his roof, his car, in the bushes, etc).

It's amazing the interesting people you meet when birding! Just in that one day, we met people from all over the state and the country, talked to complete strangers who had fascinating stories to tell, and were all more than willing to help us in whatever way they could.

After leaving the peacock house, we went to the end of the road and birded around the plantation (really cool place, I wish I'd had more time to explore!). We ran into another birder we had talked to back at Huguenot, and she said she had seen a Painted Bunting back along the road where we had come from.

We headed back to the location she indicated. We stopped at one point along the way, and observed an American Redstart feeded a baby Brown-headed Cowbird. (I felt kind of bad for the Redstart -- the cowbird most likely pushed her babies out of the nest, but she will instinctively go on feeding it until it grows up).

Finally, we pulled over one more time and Wes played a tape of a Painted Bunting call. After a good 5 or 10 minutes, the bird swooped down out of nowhere and started chattering irritably at us.If at all possible, I was even more excited for the bunting than I was for the Greater Sandplover!
It wasn't exactly a lifer (I saw Painted Buntings when I was really little), but it was exciting to see it again and really appreciate it this time.

Wes, Dave and Erik asked what other birds I needed, and I mentioned that I didn't have very many sparrows, so we decided to grab lunch and then find some pine forests in which to go look for a Bachman's Sparrow.

We went to a park called Haw's Creek, but it was overgrown with scrub and the wrong kind of habitat for sparrows. Plus, by now there were thunderstorms all around us and it was raining off and on, so we decided to take a quick break and then head back across the state. Before we left, we did manage to see a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on some trumpet vine flowers over the parking lot, which was a fun treat.

As we headed back west, we saw quite a few Swallowtail Kites flying over the road. When we drove under three of them together -- a juvenile and two adults -- we pulled over and Wes brought out his bird call tape.

The Kites doubled back and flew towards us, swooping in low and turning their heads inquisitively towards us to figure out what the sound was.

It was really cool to see them up close. They seem like very curious birds; after a while, two of them lost interest, but the third one hung around for a bit, still trying to figure us out.

In that one trip, I got 12 year birds, 7 lifers, and an unforgettable experience.

On the way back, driving through rain and thunderstorms, Wes and Dave told more tales about their birding adventures.

Once again, I am simply in awe of the incredible people I've met through birding. How amazing it is that three random folks who I don't even know would offer to take me across the state, show me new birds, and share their fantastic stories and wealth of knowledge.

I am infinitely grateful to Wes, Dave and Erik for taking me along on their great adventure, and putting up with my newbieness and ornithological ignorance. I am also indebted to my mom for getting up at 4am for me, tolerating my insanity, and supporting me in this wonderful journey. I can never thank you enough!

Until next time,

Happy birding!


To see the rest of my photos from the trip, click here.

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A wild Greater Sandplover chase, part 1

Long before sunrise yesterday morning, I was sitting in the back seat of a Grand Cherokee with 3 strange men who I had never met before. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a horror story, but in fact it was quite the opposite.

I was going after the Greater Sandplover with the first and third top birders in the state of Florida -- Wes Biggs and David Goodwin, and a former student of David's, Erik Haney. I honestly have no idea how I happened to fall into such good hands, but these incredible birders took me under their wing (no pun intended!) and on one of the craziest 1-day adventures of my entire life.

For the first hour or two of the ride, I listened to them tell stories of their birding endeavors around the country and beyond, and after a while I and the other passengers dozed off for a bit. By the time we got to the St. John's River, the sun was rising like a huge, pale red orb, through the thick mist that blanketed the landscape as far as the eye could see.

We stopped at a gas station right before Huguenot Memorial Park (the location of the Greater Sandplover) to load up on coffee and snacks for breakfast, and then headed out to find the ABA code 5 bird.

It wasn't hard at all. As we drove across the sandy road, we saw about 40 or so birders lined up on a wide mudflat. Erik was practically ready to jump out of the car while it was still moving, so David pulled over and told us to run out with the scopes while he parked.

With my camera, binoculars, and a big spotting scope over my shoulder, I walked out across the mudflat with Erik to join the other birders. With each step, our feet sunk 3 or 4 inches into the mud, but we made it out and immediately a couple random birders showed me a good spot to set up and pointed out the sandplover.

Disclaimer: These are the worst Greater Sandplover photos you will ever see, thanks to my camera and its distinct inability (or should I say, unwillingness) to take decent photographs at the most inopportune moments. It was the easiest bird I think I've ever found. I had the scope on it in less than 30 seconds, as it stood out brightly from the plovers and turnstones around it. What a fantastic bird! It ran around on long legs, catching fiddler crabs and preening its feathers.

It was so far out I couldn't get any decent pictures but I managed to get a couple where it is at least recognizable.

I just had to take this picture from my position squished in between a mass of birders and spotting scopes. :-) So many people!

Behind the Greater Sandplover, there were a few other species, mostly Gull-billed Terns, as well as Whimbrels, Wilson's Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Talking with the other birders, we decided to go check out the jetty on the beach to find the Purple Sandpiper that had been reported there, since I've never seen one before.

The jetty was big. Really big. We clambered over it to the other side and met two young women who described where they had seen the Purple Sandpiper. Just as they were explaining, someone pointed behind us. "There it is!"

Binoculars up, I caught a glimpse of the Purple Sandpiper flying with two other sandpipers over the jetty and out of sight. I climbed up the rocks to get a better view, but they had disappeared.

Other birders were just arriving, but there was no way to tell where it had gone. We were the last ones to see it.

-End part 1. To be continued.-

Friday, May 15, 2009

Morning birding

"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order." - John Burroughs

This morning my sister and I headed down to the local park for a hike and some birding. It was a little late -- around 9:15 or so, and quite damp and cloudy, but the woods were nonetheless alive with dozens of bird songs.

Our first encounter was a female Pine Warbler gathering palm fibers for her nest. Although she was only a few feet away, she was incredibly fast, and my camera refused to focus correctly. I played with the settings, and only managed to get a couple mediocre shots before she disappeared.
Further down the trail, we found a tiny juvenile ground skink. My sister caught it and we looked at it for a few minutes before letting it go again.

The lake was incredibly dry, despite the rain showers we've been getting lately, but it provided us with a good opportunity to get off trail and hike along the bank. Where there had once been water was now filled with a huge field of yellow flowers and wire grasses.

On the opposite side of the lake, we saw an incredibly pink Roseate Spoonbill land, so we decided to try and catch up to it. It took about a half hour to get close enough for the above photo (which is blurry, I know), before it flew off to the opposite side of the lake where we had just come from.
There was another, more intriguing bird that grabbed my attention though.

Three dark wading birds were foraging along the shore, some distance away from us. Glossy Ibises! I haven't seen one of these since 2007, and I've never seen one in FL before. They were extremely skittish, and I was unable to get up close, but the pictures are decent enough to confirm the ID.

I'm really excited -- the Glossy Ibis is year bird #90!

The total list from the short hike:
  1. Pine Warbler
  2. Fish Crow
  3. Laughing Gull
  4. Osprey
  5. White Ibis
  6. Glossy Ibis
  7. Roseate Spoonbill
  8. Cardinal
  9. Great-crested Flycatcher
  10. Northern Parula
  11. Tufted Titmouse
  12. Mourning Dove
  13. Cattle Egret
  14. Ruddy Turnstone
  15. Tree Swallow

It's a relatively small list, but I don't really care. We had a lot of fun, and I saw a new year bird!

Until next time,

Happy birding!

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Summer at last

By date, alone, it is not summer, but I think nature has other ideas. Driving home from college yesterday, I got some photos of the spectacular thunderstorms raging out over the bay. It was a quite a display -- lightning spiderwebbed across the steel-blue sky and the water boasted an odd seafoam green color, tossing white-capped waves over one another.

Thunderstorms are a sure sign that summer is here.

Today I took full advantage of my first day of summer break, not having any classes or meetings or obligations, and tried sketching a Prairie Warbler. It's hard to draw such a colorful bird in black and white, but I think I managed to pull it off, sort of.

Well, if the weather improves tomorrow, I'll try to get out and do some birding.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Recent sightings

Despite being completely swamped with work over the last few weeks, I've managed to add a few more birds to my year list.

On April 21st, I observed my first-of-the-year Ruby-throated Hummingbird at around 8am, flying outside the window of the cafeteria. It was the last place I'd expect to see one, but I wonderful surprise nonetheless.

Five days later, I saw 5 Canada Geese fly over (they must have been quite lost!). And on May 1st, I saw my first Black-throated Blue Warbler in almost 2 years. The last one I saw was in Maine in 2007, so it also marked the first Black-throated Blue I've seen in my state.

And finally, on Sunday, coming back from a short boat ride out into the bay and back, I saw a Magnificent Frigatebird wheeling overhead a few hundred yards offshore.

These birds bring my meager year list up to 89 -- not bad for someone who never gets to go birding!

Well, hopefully that won't be the case for long, come next week after finals.

Happy birding!

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