Tuesday, December 16, 2014

American Tree Sparrow

It's always nice to see family out-of-state, and visiting another state has an entirely different meaning to the list-obsessed birder. I recently visited Cincinnati for Thanksgiving, and of course I was obliged to do a little birding. So I couldn't help but to head to one of the birdiest spots in the Cincinnati area, Armleder Park. I had one target - American Tree Sparrow. These subtle little birds are a common sight up north, but are very rare as far south as North Carolina. And just as American Tree Sparrows seldom stray southward, I seldom stray northward, and thus our paths had yet to cross. As a sparrow-loving birder (don't ever call them LBJs, ever), I knew I couldn't miss an opportunity to see one.

It took a little while wandering around the park to spot the Sparrow. It was snowing. Like, there were snowflakes. It was cold (for me at least). Trudging along through the polar tundra that is southern Ohio, there were some new state birds to be had - White-crowned Sparrow, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse - but I was afraid we'd strike out. Luckily, towards the end of the walk, we finally found two of the targets. One stayed out in the open just long enough to snap a photo and observe some of its finer details. I usually like to write about strikingly beautiful or rare birds, but there is something to be said for the American Tree Sparrow. They're subtle, but pretty awesome in their own unique way. In the words of Bob Dylan, if you're traveling in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline, remember me to one who lives there: the American Tree Sparrow. At least I think that's what he said, I was too busy looking for Rough-legged Hawks while that song was playing on the car ride home.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Big Bend: The Hunt for the Colima Warbler

The Colima Warbler is a Mexican species, plain and simple. Yet by some quirk of geography, geology, and climate, a few of these drab warblers breed in the United States. Where, you may ask? In the montane oak forests of the Chisos Mountains - an area covering only a few square miles in some of the most rugged terrain in the country, smack in the middle of a seldom-visited national park.   The only place the intrepid birder will find the Colima is by hiking miles up from the Chisos Basin campground. Fortunately, this dry forest harbors more than this one warbler - a fact I discovered almost immediately after we entered the forest around 6:30 AM.
Mexican Jay in the low light, before the sun rose above the mountains. These were the most common bird along the Pinnacles Trail.
Mexican Jays were omnipresent along the trail, and we were never far from their raucous calls. Mexican Jays are, obviously, a Mexican species, only found in the US in Texas and Arizona (notice a theme here?) The sun began to hit the treetops, and other birds started waking up. As we climbed steadily upward, we encountered Black-headed Grosbeaks, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Bewick's Wrens.

About halfway up the mountainside, I found the first mixed flock of the day. It was primarily composed of Black-crested Titmice, but after some dedicated pishing I scrounged up my lifer Hutton's Vireo. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet look-alike, the Hutton's was actually one of the birds I most wanted to see out West (I really don't know why - they're not that impressive. I just like them). After about an hour of climbing, the forest had finally transitioned to oak - the preferred habitat of the Colima Warbler.

Not long after my encounter with the Hutton's I heard an unfamiliar song coming from the treetops. I could tell it was a warbler, but that was about it. I brushed it off until it started up again, this time closer. I looked toward the song's source to see a stunning Painted Redstart perched in one of the oaks. This is honestly one of the most beautiful of the 42 warbler species I've seen - the stark contrast between white, black, and crimson is absolutely spectacular.
Painted Redstart
But the Redstart just wouldn't cooperate for a photo. It jumped around in a possessed frenzy, singing its heart out. As it made its way further and further away from me, I initiated a last-ditch effort to pish it in. It didn't work. Dismayed, I turned back to the trail.

But mid-turn, something caught my eye. A gray bird was rustling through the leaves ten or so feet from me. A quick look through my binoculars and I knew - it was a Colima! I forgot all about the redstart to focus on the orange-capped Oreothlypis warbler perched in front of me. Then, just as quietly as it appeared, the bird flew off. I had just seen what are arguably the best warblers of my life, within a matter of seconds.
The Colima Warbler - one of the nation's most sought-after birds, just a few feet from me!
With the weight of the rare warbler lifted off my shoulders, I could focus on my next target - hummingbirds. We rose over the crest of the mountains, where the Pinnacles trail turned into the Boot Canyon Trail. It was sunny and dry on this side, and the forest buzzed with activity.
Boot Canyon - prime hummingbird habitat.
The first hummer I saw along Boot Canyon was a stunning male Rufous Hummingbird. Prior to this, I had only seen female or immature Rufous wintering in North Carolina - so seeing this fiery jewel in perfect light was quite an experience. The RUHU also holds the distinction of being the ABA bird of the year. Next I spotted a tiny female Calliope Hummingbird, along with a few Black-chinneds, the Western counterpart of the Ruby-throated. My mom found an unusual hummingbird perched below us in the ravine, which turned out to be my lifer Blue-throated Hummingbird, one of my main targets along this trail and another southwestern specialty.

We hiked another mile or so into Boot Canyon, marked by amazing scenery and few birds. A heard-only Band-tailed Pigeon, several good looks at Acorn Woodpeckers, and a Cordilleran Flycatcher were the only birds (save for the Mexican Jays calling from everywhere).  It was around noon, and the heat was starting to pick up. With the Colima successfully found, we decided it was time to head back down.

Other than an Olive-sided Flycatcher that made an appearance while eating lunch, the descent from Boot Canyon was relatively uneventful. The further we went down, the hotter it got, and soon we were roasting in the mid-afternoon sun. Upon returning to the car, I gave one last look into that spectacular forest high above us. The Colima Warbler was mine - after one of my favorite all-time hikes.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Big Bend National Park - The Birder's Park

ABA-area listers know Big Bend National Park for the Colima Warbler.  A handful of these drab Mexican warblers breed in the park's Chisos Mountains, the only place in the entire country where they can be found.  Colima Warblers aren't the only reason to visit this remote park, however. The birding there is nothing short of excellent, especially for an Easterner like me. Hummingbirds abound, Scaled Quail can be found running every which way, and passerines and hawks flock to the cottonwood oases. In fact, Big Bend has had more species of bird than any other US National Park!

Subsequently, on the first morning, it didn't take long for me to spot my first lifer. Two Lesser Nighthawks were flying along the gravel road I was on. They perched in the tree, and I nabbed a few photos - the first nightjar species I've photographed!

Lesser Nighthawks in the lower desert.
A few other desert species began to make appearances, including a few western Red-tailed Hawks and my lifer Pyrrhuloxia, the drab (but somehow more interesting) counterpart of the Northern Cardinal.  Near Santa Elena canyon, I spotted a small group of Gambel's Quail scurrying along the bottom of a wash. A Greater Roadrunner, the first of many, ran across the road (big surprise there).

The drive down to the Rio Grande was nice, but the birding really picked up at the Cottonwood Campground along the banks of the river.  Stunning Vermillion Flycatchers were seemingly everywhere, as were Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.  Inca Doves were also preposterously abundant around the cottonwood trees. The lifers were coming easier than I had anticipated.

My first-ever Inca Dove, in all its tiny, scaly glory.
I kept hearing an odd hawk calling from a nearby clearing, and I couldn't quite pinpoint the species. It slowly dawned on me that it was a Gray Hawk, one of only a few that live in the US. I tried desperately to track down the bird. I ran toward the clearing, thinking for sure I would see it.  But there was one problem - the muddy Rio Grande lay between me and the bird I was hearing. Even if I saw the bird, it would count as a Mexico bird but not as a North American.  However, in a complete and random stroke of luck, the hawk appeared, and flapped enthusiastically across the river into the US, and landed in another thicket.  I ran excitedly back to the car, but en route I spotted a small passerine flicking through some shrubs. It popped up with a bit of light pishing, revealing a gnatcatcher with an all-black undertail - a dead giveaway for lifer Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. A yellow headed Verdin was singing atop the same bush, giving me another great life bird.

We headed over to the eastern side of the park to look for more birds. The best sighting there was of a Common Black Hawk in the campground, an ABA lifer (though not a year bird - I saw a few in Tortuguero back in March).  There were even more Vermillion Flycatchers over there, and one was cooperative enough for a photo. Painted Buntings were common in the campground as well. Higher up in the desert I saw a drab female Varied Bunting - not the brighly-colored male I was hoping for, but still a cool bird.  Black-throated Sparrows, one of the more attractive sparrows in the US, were abundant among the desert scrub.

Common Black Hawk, one of only a few breeding birds in North America

Vermillion Flycatcher
My first day in Big Bend National Park was pretty spectacular - and not only because of the bird life. The scenery in this remote part of the country is breathtaking. Through the haze, the rugged Chisos loom above the entire park.  I would be atop those mountains the next day, doing my best to spot the Colima Warbler on the aptly-named Pinnacles Trail.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Davis Mountains State Park - My Introduction to West Texas

The intangible allure of Texas can be felt by nearly every American birder.  Each year, thousands of us brave the horrifying heat, Rick Perry, the Border Patrol, and copious amounts of fast food to enjoy what is arguably the best state in the country for birding.  With the cruise set on 90 mph just west of Odessa, however, I was doubting my decision to come here.  Surrounding I-20 was one of the most depressing landscapes I've ever seen - an endless expanse of flat, scrubby desert, interrupted by thousands of oil derricks.  It was the closest thing I've ever seen to a wasteland.  As we turned off the interstate and headed south, however, prospects began to look up.  The dust disappeared.  A few distant peaks materialized on the far on the horizon.  I was getting antsy.  I wanted birds.

A facemeltingly-cute Black-crested Titmouse, a Texas specialty.
Luckily, Davis Mountains State Park lived up to my high expectations.  It was my first real "birding destination" on the trip, and proved an excellent introduction to West Texas.  The first bird that caught my eye was the Black-crested Titmouse, birds very similar to the ubiquitous Tufted Titmouse I'm used to seeing back home.  I opted to hang out near the park's bird blind, an area with several feeders and water sources.  An adult male Calliope Hummingbird flew into investigate, as did several Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  I was especially excited when a Western Scrub-Jay appeared at the water source.  The Western Scrub-Jay complex may be split - soon, the real species name for this bird will likely be Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay.

"Woodhouse's" Scrub-Jay
Several other lifers made appearances at the feeder, including Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Canyon Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, and Bewick's Wren.  We hiked up a short trail in a futile attempt to spot a Montezuma Quail, the park's specialty bird.  A drive up the park road yielded nice looks at a few Cassin's Kingbirds as well as a Lark Sparrow.  I hadn't seen this many new birds since my pelagic trip back in June.

The highlight, however, came from a completely unexpected stroke of luck.  I decided to look around a small picnic area for passerines while my mom looked at the map back at the car.  I was about to turn back when I spotted two rotund objects scurrying along the dry stream bed.  My eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw that they were Montezuma Quail, one of the most sought-after (and comical-looking) birds in the country. I ran back to nab my camera for a photo, but the quail had hunkered down by the time I got back.  At least I could leave the state park completely satisfied, with more than a few new lifers under my belt.  But the real highlight of my trip, Big Bend National Park, lay in waiting down the desert road.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dickcissel in Guilford County

First, some blog business.  The number of posts to this blog have been (and will continue to be) relatively low.  This is because most of my writing efforts have gone into The Birder's Conundrum, a new blog jointly managed by Sam Jolly.  I still plan on updating this blog from time to time, but not as frequently as in the past.

Anyway, it's July.  July is the worst.  It is the time of year where birders retreat back into their holes to avoid the oppressive heat and general lack of bird life.  But a few weeks ago, while I was trying (and failing) to find good birds at Sunset Beach, a few breeding Dickcissels were found up in Guilford County, near Greensboro.  Dickcissels are rare breeders in North Carolina, and I had yet to see one in our state.  So, this week, with the promise of cooler temperatures, I made the 75 minute drive to the farm.

I pulled off on the shoulder of the road to scan the fields.  There were scores of Grasshopper Sparrows singing and flying around everywhere, some quite close.  Anything Ammodramus has a way of cheering me up, but they weren't what I was after.

Grasshopper Sparrow, taken from my car
I was starting to get worried.  It had been over a week since anyone had reported the Dickcissels, and there was no sign of them now.  I drove down the road, and scanned again.  I heard the classic Dickcissel flight call behind me, and started looking around frantically.  I didn't want to put this one down in the "heard only" category.  Luckily, after a few seconds, I spotted the bird perched on a wire not too far from me.  I edged a little closer, and got excellent views of my 301st NC bird.  It was definitely worth the drive up there.

Dickcissel success!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

300th State Bird

Following a tip from Nathan and Sarah on the pelagic trip, Sam and I decided to stop by Pea Island NWR on the way back to Raleigh.  A Brant, usually long gone to its arctic breeding grounds, had been hanging around with some Canada Geese for the past week or so.  Brants are usually only seen off of ferries in North Carolina in winter, so I had yet to see one.  We pulled over at the telephone pole labeled "66" and scoped the North Pond.  It wasn't hard to find the little Brant swimming off to the side of the goose flock.  It was a lifer and my 300th bird in North Carolina.  I finished the three-day trip with 16 lifers, including Gull-billed Tern, 14 pelagic species, and this small goose - amazing for staying in my home state.  I also had my first soul-satisfying view of a Northern Bobwhite - one waddled through the campground on our second night.  This trip also allowed Dare County to soar to the second-place position on my obsessive county listing map.  My birding will never be the same.

Brant in the North Pond.  I took this with my phone through the scope, so give me a break about the image quality.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hatteras Pelagic - The South Polar Express

Ever since I learned what a pelagic trip was, I wanted to go.  It took long enough, but Sam Jolly and I finally decided to drop the money on one and head out to Hatteras, on a trip captained by Brian Patteson.  Pelagic trips are one of the most bizarre things birders do - subjecting oneself to the unpredictable conditions of the sea to see a few gray-and-brown birds seems, well, unnatural.  But those few birds out there are often incredibly rare (at least rarely seen by humans), and are always entertaining.  So we, along with over a dozen other birders, filed onto the Stormy Petrel II at 5:15 AM Monday morning, hoping to see these seabirds.

It takes approximately two hours to get out far enough to find the birds, which are usually found at the edge of the Gulf Stream at the continental shelf.  On the way out, we spotted a few wayward seabirds - the ubiquitous Wilson's Storm-Petrel, my first lifer of the day, as well as a Sooty Shearwater and a Cory's Shearwater.  Cory's was my 500th life bird!  An adult Arctic Tern flew alongside the boat, silhouetted by the rising sun.  It was going to be a good day.

After another hour or so, we stumbled on an eddy in the Gulf Stream that was much closer to shore than expected.  Brian stopped the boat, and almost immediately one of the spotters found a Long-tailed Jaeger, the first one seen in North Carolina this year, chasing a small group of Sterna terns.  A few Pomarine Jaegers, much larger and more "pot-bellied" than the Long-tailed, joined in behind the boat, and followed us for quite some time.  One of the Poms flew over the boat several times, giving everyone on board excellent views of this impressive bird.  This also was the third and final jaeger on my life list.
Pomarine Jaeger
Red-necked Phalaropes usually pass through North Carolina's waters a few weeks earlier in May, so it was a surprise to find two flocks floating near the boat.  Phalaropes are strange birds, and are essentially sandpipers pretending to be ducks.  Most of the ones along the East Coast tend to stay far offshore, so a pelagic is the easiest way to see them.
Red-necked Phalaropes
We saw a few more Pomarine Jaegers before motoring up and heading further offshore.  En route, a distant Bridled Tern flying over a swath of sargasso gave us identifiable views, enough to count.  It was a shame we couldn't see one close-up, but a Bridled Tern is a good bird under pretty much any circumstance.

We arrived at the true Gulf Stream, and could see a defined line between the bright blue warm waters and the more gray waters we were used to seeing.  They started putting out fish oil behind the boat to bring in the birds.  Tubenoses (the family to which many of the target species belong) have excellent senses of smell, so it didn't take long them to fly in.  After a while, a few of the rarer storm-petrels, Band-rumped and Leach's, started joining the throngs of Wilson's Storm-Petrels gathering behind the boat.  The Leach's were especially prevalent due to the strong northeasterly winds the past few days, and have the distinction of flying almost exactly like the Common Nighthawk.  As the storm-petrels grew in number, the swells grew in size - they began to appear taller than the boat.  Several folks started to feel a little ill, and would succumb to seasickness within a few hours - luckily I was not among them.  Larger birds continued to zoom by, mostly Cory's and Great Shearwaters.
Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  Band-rumped and Leach's have longer wings and different flight styles.
Cory's Shearwater.  Yes, that is actually how blue the water was.
Great Shearwater, taken later in the day.
Another Long-tailed Jaeger flew in, our third of the day.  This one stayed behind the boat and was much more cooperative for photographs.  Long-tailed are the smallest and most graceful birds in the genus Stercorarius, which includes skuas and jaegers.  They tend have a more delicate frame and a tern-like flight style, helping to eliminate the similar Parasitic Jaeger (Poms aren't even close).
Long-tailed Jaeger.
Somehow, Sam and I ended up on the side of the boat with only a handful of other people.  One of the spotters, who was standing nearby, said "get on this bird - 9 o'clock, above the horizon."  We looked up to see a massive bird far off in the distance.  It turned.  It was getting closer.  Wait - I know what that is! "Skua!"we said simultaneously.  Then even louder - "SKUA!"  "South Polar Skua" - Brian's intercom message caused a frenzy of activity on the deck.  Everyone ran to our side of the boat as the bird flew directly overhead, then circled directly behind the boat to tussle with the Long-tailed Jaeger.  Skuas are pretty much the Grizzly Bears of the avian world - they're bulky, lumbering animals that strike terror in the hearts its smaller peers, and the onlooking human is always excited to see one.
South Polar Skua, the most majestic of the world's dull brown birds.
Because you can never get too close to a South Polar Skua.  Never. 
Everyone on the boat was elated, and it was a lifer for many of us aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  This beautiful Antarctic breeder gave us incredible views just an arm's reach from the stern before it settled further back into the fish oil slick, eventually disappearing along with the jaeger.

Some of the primary targets of any Hatteras pelagic in the summer months are the Pterodroma petrels, also known as the "Gadfly Petrels".  The sun was climbing to noon and there was still no sign of even the most common one (locally), the Black-capped Petrel.  As we searched, we started to see more and more Audubon's Shearwaters, substantially smaller than the other shearwaters in the area.  Finally, around 11:30 we had a Black-capped Petrel sweep by the boat, giving everyone close, but brief, views.  There are only a few thousand of these Hispaniola-breeding petrels remaining, and nearly all of them spend  the summer feeding off the Outer Banks.  
Black-capped Petrel
Over the next few hours, we saw a few more of the endangered Black-cappeds along with scores of Great Shearwaters, Cory's Shearwaters, and hundreds of Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  No more new species appeared after lunchtime, but we wrapped up the trip with another Arctic Tern and a flyby Pomarine Jaeger.  The 30-mile trip back to port took quite a while, broken by the occasional view of a flying fish jumping away from the boat.  The lighthouse came into view, then we could see land.  Finally, we stumbled back ashore, thanking the crew for the great time.  I got 14 lifers on this 12-hour boat ride, an incredible number for my home state.  I'm sure I'll be back out on the open ocean again, looking for more pelagic magic.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

100% Lifer

The cloud forest - an ecosystem I've been fascinated by since I learned of its existence.  These verdant, moss-covered forests can be found high in tropical mountains that are constantly blanketed by cool mists and clouds.  These are hotbeds for biodiversity, filled with many endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth.

Monteverde, literally meaning "green mountain", is the most famous of the Central American cloud forests, and was where I would be exposed to this incredible habitat for the first time.  Monteverde is centered around the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, but many other protected areas surround the village.  Selvatura Park is one such reserve.  Despite the occasional whir of a zip-liner overhead (people who one guide unaffectionately dubbed "the white monkeys") it was an amazing place.  Only one thing was missing - the clouds.  Apparently early April is the height of the dry season in Central America, and we had arrived the one week out of the year when clouds are few and far between.  The moss that clung to every tree was dry, and a brisk breeze blew through the treetops.

Our guide Samuel was definitely an expert, and it didn't take long for us to start spotting birds.  A few Violet Sabrewings and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, both aptly-named species of hummingbirds, buzzed around the trail just above the parking lot (more on hummingbirds later).  Just as Samuel was asking me what bird I most wanted to see in the cloud forest, it flew out right in front of us - a Resplendent Quetzal, what has been dubbed "the most beautiful bird in the New World".  At the very least, it was the most beautiful bird I've seen.  After a few seconds of pure shock, I came to my senses and began shooting some photos, my hands still shaking.  People travel from all over the world to see this bird, and we had found one after five minutes of birding in its habitat. The bird slipped back into the forest, and we continued on our way, still shocked at the sighting.
Our first glimpse of the Resplendent Quetzal.
The nature trails around Selvatura Park are perhaps most notable for the extensive network of suspension bridges that take guests into the canopy.  This allows visitors to look down on birds that usually live thirty or more feet above the forest floor.  One of these birds was the Black Guan, a bizarre relative of the turkey and an inhabitant of high-elevation forests.  Other than the bird's bright blue facial skin, it was entirely black - allowing this hefty bird to hide in the shadows of the canopy completely unnoticed.  
One of two Black Guans we saw at Selvatura.
The grating, electric call of the bizarre Three-wattled Bellbird started to echo through the forest, and Samuel had a feeling he knew where it was perched.  The Bellbird prefers perches on snags protruding through the canopy, where it can broadcast its call for over a kilometer - it is, in fact, the loudest bird vocalization on earth.  We climbed the hill to a gap in the forest, where we could see the bird on the opposite side of a mountain cove.  Three-wattled Bellbirds are endangered, more so than the Resplendent Quetzal.  Monteverde bellbirds actually have a different dialect from birds in the neighboring mountain ranges, with distinct variations in their call types.
Three-wattled Bellbird - my only one of the trip.
While we were observing the bellbird, a little Slate-throated Redstart crept up along the trail.  These neotropical warblers show geographic variation in belly color throughout their range - from red in Mexico to the lemon-yellow seen in Costa Rica southward.  They are common residents of montane forests throughout Central America, so I saw dozens of these active birds during my four days in the cloud forest.
Slate-throated Redstart
We crossed another short bridge to find a beautiful male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem perched a few feet off the path.  These birds are endemic to northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua, and reside only at high elevations.  Many tropical birds (especially hummingbirds) have ridiculous names that somehow still describe them perfectly, and Purple-throated Mountain Gem is certainly one of these birds.  Nearby, we caught a glimpse of the Orange-bellied Trogon, a reclusive relative of the Resplendent Quetzal, deep within the forest.  Trogons were one of my favorite families of birds from my trip to Costa Rica, and this male really exemplifies these birds' quiet beauty.
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Orange-bellied Trogon
At this point, I realized that every single bird so far on this walk was a lifer.  It was like birding in a bizarre dream world, filled with names dazzling in their complexity.  A Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (one of the greatest bird names of all time) scurried around the understory. Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, a Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Silver-throated Tanagers, and a Golden-browed Chlorophonia all foraged in the same avocado tree next to the park's largest suspension bridge.  We could see the mountains of the nearby Santa Elena reserve, along with the continental divide, from this bridge over the forest.  A Swallow-tailed Kite, another lifer, soared gracefully above the rounded peaks.
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush.
Golden-browed Chlorophonia collecting nesting material.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager
The dream began to fade to a close as the sun went down.  We kept moving down the path, nearing closer and closer to the parking lot.  We started onto one of the final suspension bridges, crossing above a small mountain stream.  The one-note whistle of the male Resplendent Quetzal came from somewhere deep in the shadows.  Samuel whistled back, just to see what would happen.  The bird flew past us, and landed somewhere just out of sight.  To my amazement, it doubled back, landing in the open just ten feet from me.  I was at eye level with what is perhaps the most awe-inspiring bird in the Americas.  I don't think I've ever had that good of a view of any bird.  I could see every detail, from the emerald shine on its crest to the subtle glint in its eye.  It was one of the most incredible experiences of my short birding career, and definitely one I'll never forget.

I couldn't have hoped for this.  This is one of those bring-you-to-tears sightings.

100% lifer: the composition of my list from Selvatura.  I had entered the bizarre and fantastical world of the cloud forest.  And there were many more birds left to see before my time there was up.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Real Pirate of the Caribbean

Our next day on the Caribbean coast was primarily for fishing - trying to land one of the monster tarpon that can be found in Costa Rica's tropical waters.  The remote waterways between Tortuguero and the Nicaraguan border to the north also harbor some great birditat, so I was hoping I could also spot some good birds along the way.  Our destination was the mouth of the Colorado River (no, not that Colorado), where it empties into the Caribbean Sea.  To get there involved transiting miles and miles of narrow canals, dug a century ago by logging companies.  The jungle has since reclaimed this vast, remote swath of tropical lowlands.  Huge palms lined the shores.  Parakeets and Montezuma Oropendolas flew back and forth across the shallow waters.  A few Dusky-capped Flycatchers, a lifer Myiarchus, sang from the snags near the bank.

We started moving into progressively larger bodies of water.  I spotted a few small groups of Groove-billed Anis, all-black relatives of cuckoos.  Finally, we rounded the bend to see the wide, muddy Colorado stretching before us.  We headed past basking American Crocodiles, just feet away from feeding Little Blue Herons and a Roseate Spoonbill.  

The first spot we tried was a bust - no fish were biting.  This was also the first time I truly experienced the sweltering tropical sun.  I actually felt like I was melting.  Luckily for me, we pulled anchor and went downstream to the river mouth.  Here there was at least a breeze - but any relief I felt was soon crushed by the huge swells coming in off the sea.  Not good news for someone who gets seasick.  We were in a pretty small boat, and the water was just a few inches from spilling over and sinking us as each wave went by.  My dad and I were legitimately worried by the time our guide Roberto dropped anchor.  Pretty soon, though, 100+ pound Tarpon started biting, and we pretty much forgot about the waves.  We couldn't keep any of them on for long - we weren't exactly experienced with fish nearly the size of a person!

There was a lull in the action, and I looked around me.  A sizable flock of Royal Terns were resting on the beach on the south side of the inlet.  To my surprise, they all took off.  I spun around to see a powerful gull-like bird barreling toward the terns at top speed.  It was mottled brown with striking white patches on its inner primaries.  I knew what it was, a bird I had never seen before.  A jaeger.

Hell yes.
"Skua!" Roberto shouted, "that bird belong WAY out in da ocean."  He was right.  Parasitic Jaeger (called Arctic Skua in many parts of the world) was just about the last bird on my mind at the time.  It wasn't even in the field guide I brought along.  I jumped down to grab my camera, and started firing away.  I knew the only way I would be able to safely identify the bird to species would be with photographs, especially considering my lack of experience with the genus. (Note - I am pretty sure about my ID, but if anyone disagrees, feel free to comment below.  Jaegers are hard.)

The word "jaeger", used in North America to describe the smaller species of skuas, comes from the German word "jäger", or "hunter".  It's not really an accurate name - this bird doesn't do as much hunting as its name suggests, at least not in winter (they feed on smaller birds more frequently in summer).  In fact, it gets most of its food by stealing from other birds - a habit known as kleptoparasitism, the natural world's equivalent to piracy.  Jaegers chase and harass their victims, particularly gulls and terns, until they give up whatever prey they may have caught.  It's awesome.  I watched this particular bird bolt after the flock of terns, singling a few out to target at a time.  It clearly had an upper hand with its freakish speed.  After just a few minutes at the inlet, this avian pirate turned back to the sea, and melted away into the horizon.
Parasitic Jaeger flying over the rainforest - not a caption I ever thought I'd write.
This was the highlight of my day (my dad's highlight was catching a 100 pound tarpon - I failed to land one).  On the way back, Roberto did find one more nice surprise for us - a slightly out-of-range Snail Kite perched above a backwater.  It was pretty cooperative, though the heat shimmer made the photo a little blurry.
Snail Kite - a kite that eats snails.
We finally got back to the lodge around mid-afternoon, finishing up the boat ride with a group of White-collared Swifts circling overhead.  It had been a fantastic last day in the lowlands - our next destination would be completely different.

Monday, May 19, 2014

North Carolina Big Day - May 4th, 2014

2:15 AM.  The alarm starts buzzing beside my head, ending my five-hour slumber.  I clambered down my bed and stumbled down the hall to wake up Sam.  We packed the cooler and jumped into the car - it was go time. 
A 90s-style birding promotion of the day.  Sam clearly has too much time on his hands.
We were embarking on a big day - yes, another one.  Our goal was to hit 135 species of birds, all seen within 24 hours in North Carolina, on a route that would take us from marshy Atlantic inlets to bottomland forests, and all the way back to Raleigh.  We cruised down I-40 toward Wilmington and the coast.  The major highway was all but abandoned at 3 in the morning, and we kept ourselves awake by jamming to some music and drinking some super-concentrated cold-brew coffee.  It was pretty potent stuff, to say the least, and the taste kind of burned until you got used to it.  At about 4:15 we arrived at our first destination, a lonely road north of Wilmington where Chuck-will's-widows had been reported.  We pulled off on the shoulder to investigate a good spot.  Immediately, we heard a chorus of Chucks singing - dozens of them.  One easy first bird. 

Because the Chuck-will's-widows were so easy to find, we were left with extra time on our hands - so we opted for a breakfast.  We arrived at McDonald's relatively smoothly (the only major, and unfortunately literal, bump was The Raccoon Incident, which will forever live in infamy).  While sitting in the parking lot eating chicken biscuits, we picked up House Sparrow, a bird almost always present under the Golden Arches.  Just like that, we brought our bird list to a whopping 2 species.

But now the "real" birding would begin.  We made the short jaunt over to the north end of Wrightville Beach to visit our first true destination - Mason Inlet.  This area is excellent for shorebirding, and we knew it would be a crucial stop for our day to succeed.  We arrived just before dawn - the subtle glow of the morning sun was just appearing along the horizon.  There was just enough light to see through the scopes, and we walked down to the gnat-infested marsh to start looking.  Just calling it "gnat-infested" may be the understatement of the year.  We were literally being eaten alive by the swarming little bugs.  If the guests in the nearby hotels had been awake, they would have seen two teenage fools swatting wildly at their necks, contorting every which way and hopping around, while trying to look through scopes at a Black-bellied Plover.  It was horrible - but we needed the birds. 

As we flailed desperately to swat away our marauding insect companions, we heard the whispery song of the Nelson's Sparrow, as well as the noisy call of a Clapper Rail.  We also spotted an Eastern Willet feeding on a mudflat in the marsh, a lifer subspecies that could eventually be split.

We booked it out of the marsh and away the growing cloud of gnats to hit the beach, which would be the crux of our inlet visit.  A steady stream of tiny Least Terns began pouring out of their sandy nesting grounds to feed offshore.  I noticed a decent flock of gulls hanging out a little ways down the beach, so we set up the scopes.  Laughing, Laughing, Herring, Ring-billed, another Laughing... until a large dark-backed gull came into view.  And another.  It was an easy identification - Lesser Black-backed Gull - not really too rare, but relatively late.  It was a good bird to find, and was certainly one we didn't expect to see.  We couldn't stand around long, so we decided to move towards the (hopefully shorebird-infested) inlet to the north.  It didn't take long to spot the classic coastal birds of the region - things like Black Skimmer, Common Tern, Royal Tern, and Brown Pelican.  We watched a half-dozen Wilson's Plovers scurry out of their nesting area toward the beach, a lifer for Sam.  Soon we were calling out shorebirds every which way - Least Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Piping Plover, Whimbrel.  Whimbrels are one of my favorite birds, and we managed to see 6 from the inlet, including one loner feasting near the marsh.

Wilson's Plover, a sly-lookin' shorebird.
Whimbrel, in a terrible photo that does little to highlight its glory.
So, yeah - Mason Inlet was a success.  We thought.  But we had just missed three really stupid birds - Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Western Sandpiper - that we wouldn't get later in the day.  Anyway, Sam walked away with two lifers and I with several new year birds.

We cruised awkwardly through a subdivision to pick up some suburban birds before heading to our next big stop, Carolina Beach State Park.  I had one thing on my mind - Painted Buntings.  One of the last "easy" birds in the state I had never seen.  Carolina Beach is one of the best places in North Carolina to find them, so I had high hopes.  When we pulled up to the park, we were immediately greeted by singing Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers.  We spotted a Summer Tanager and some Brown-headed Nuthatches as well - all common denizens of the pine-dominated forests of Carolina Beach.  We heard a song we weren't familiar with, so we creeped up along the trail to investigate.  It was a drab green Painted Bunting (I don't really know why it was singing-probably an immature male).  It flew off promptly, and we continued down the trail.  Soon we heard another bunting singing - and this one was much more cooperative.

Painted Bunting male - a coastal relative of the familiar cardinals, tanagers, and grosbeaks.
I could finally breathe a sigh of relief - I had finally seen a Painted Bunting.  It was about time.  There was little time to savor the moment, however - we had work to do.  Our next find was a female Blackpoll Warbler, a migrant we could have easily missed along our route.  A couple more birds here and there rounded out Carolina Beach for us.  We still weren't even halfway to our goal.  Fort Fisher, our last beach stop, would hopefully push us closer to that 135. 

Fort Fisher's strategic position overlooking both the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic helped make Wilmington the last Southern port to fall during the Civil War.  Now, its location makes it a major hotspot for birders.  We spotted a Cattle Egret along the roadside, a quick tick at 45 mph.  Fort Fisher has a high-ish promontory above the crashing Atlantic, and we figured we'd check the area for some ocean birds.  A small flock of Black Scoters was floating just offshore, as were scores of Brown Pelicans.  We ran over to the tangled mat of bushes across the parking lot where we knew a House Wren lived, and heard it calling almost immediately.  Next we went to The Basin, a wide shallow expanse of water abutting the Cape Fear, cut off by a long jetty.  Marsh Wrens and more Nelson's Sparrows were singing from the marsh.  We spotted a Seaside and a Savannah Sparrow in the grass, too.  Common, Royal, Caspian, Forster's, and Sandwich Terns were flying all around us, and Purple Sandpipers scurried along the jetty.  We picked up our third and fourth herons of the day - Tricolored Heron and Snowy Egret.  We still didn't have the easies like Great Blue Heron and Green Heron; Little Blue ended up being a miss.  We climbed Battery Buchanan, a sandy embankment that's usually pretty productive.  There we found our only Orchard Oriole and Tree Swallow of the day.

We really didn't feel too good about the day list after leaving Fort Fisher - there was still a brutal number of birds left to see.  We hoped Greenview Lake, a city park in Wilmington, would help fill in our embarrassing misses.  At first, it didn't seem like it would.  It was approaching midday, a time when bird activity slows to a halt.  We were poking into some bushes along the shore when we finally flushed a Great Blue Heron, a bird we were legitimately worried about before that point.  Next, a Green Heron flew past, apparently flushed by the obnoxious group of shouting women nearby.  We also saw our only Mallards of the day swimming around the cypress trees.  Greenfield seems like a nice place, and the cypress trees growing in the lake give it a distinctive Southern character - but we high-tailed it out of there, mostly due to the throngs of people enjoying the beautiful weather.  

Next stop - ILM International Airport on the north side of town.  We decided to look for the Loggerhead Shrike that had been reported from there on several occasions.  We ended up only seeing Brown-headed Cowbirds and dozens of noisy Northern Mockingbirds at the airport, but at the creek down the road we picked up Prothonotary Warbler, singing the classic "sweet sweet sweet" those golden birds are known for.  We took a short break to eat lunch and to drink more of that potent mason jar coffee.  This was our last stop in New Hanover county - the long road inland lay ahead.
Coffee Selfie
Howell Woods was our next big stop, and what we thought would be our last one with daylight.  On the drive in I saw what I thought was a Loggerhead Shrike sitting on a wire.  I slammed on the brakes and pulled off on the shoulder - sure enough, it was a shrike - the airport miss didn't matter anymore!  A Purple Martin colony was set up nearby, giving us another easy pick-up for the day.  Howell Woods is one of our favorite places within an hour's drive of Raleigh - it has the perfect combination of hardwoods, fields, bottomlands, and pine forests to be hella birdy.  A Mississippi Kite soared overhead as we jumped out of the car, and to our surprise a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was hanging out at the feeder station.  We were worried the afternoon sun would have suppressed the bird activity - but the Outside Slough trail squashed any doubt.  Soon we were knee-deep in striking male Black-throated Blue Warblers, Acadian Flycatchers, and singing Swainson's Warblers.   Just what we had hoped for.  We heard a Magnolia Warbler, saw a few Indigo Buntings, and spotted a skulking Common Yellowthroat.  We also found a Pileated Woodpecker, leaving us with only one woodpecker left to see - Northern Flicker (which wouldn't happen).  A muddy puddle in a field yielded a small flock of Semipalmated Plovers and a new day bird, Solitary Sandpiper.
Classic Howell Woods
Pretty soon, though, we started to run out of birds to see.  After picking up a lifer Mole Kingsnake crossing the trail, we realized it was time to move on.  But where?  We had planned on an extra 4 hours at Howell.  The best bet, it seemed, was to go back to familiar areas in Raleigh to fill in our misses.  First stop - Yates Mill.

The light was beginning to acquire a golden tinge when we pulled up to the millpond, and we knew we had to hurry.  We ran down to the first bridge, scoping for shorebirds.  Spotted Sandpiper - check.  Lesser Yellowlegs - check.  Nothing else?  Move on.  We were pushing a brisk pace as we rounded the second bridge, where we found Eastern Phoebe and almost a dozen Eastern Kingbirds, the last easy flycatchers we could get.  We looked up at the sky - still plenty of daylight.  Mid Pines seemed like a good next stop to find the two field birds we had missed, Meadowlark and Bobolink.  Both landed on the fencepost just a few yards into the road.  For the first time all day, we knew we were climbing rapidly in numbers.

Swift Creek Bluffs is a little-known forest park in Cary, just off busy Holly Springs Road.  There was no one there when I whipped into the little parking lot, and we moved stealthily down the path.  Sam and I were both uncannily determined - usually we are just joking around, but now we were hardly talking.  We were too close.  A Louisiana Waterthrush popped out of the brush - 126.  A small group of thrushes flew across the forest floor.  Buffy face, eye ring.  Swainson's Thrush - 127.  Little red Catharus with subtle patterning.  Veery - 128.  All we could get there.  We were done.  We ran like hell.

It was 7 - we had just under an hour of light left.  One last-ditch effort was in store, to the game lands of Harris Lake.  My home turf.  In this case, my knowledge of the area helped immensely.  Our first stop was the bridge where Cliff Swallows were nesting.  High-pitched, squeaky song above the car - Black-and-white Warbler, 129.  Scan the marshes to the northeast - Bald Eagle - 130.  A few Cliff Swallows were feeding just offshore - 131.  Another scan through the scope.  Ruddy Duck - 132.  We went down the the Upper Ramp as the sun finally went down.  Two distant Wood Ducks flew past - 133.  At that point, we really couldn't see anything else, so we went into town to get some food and regroup.  It was 8:15.

I was too tired to keep driving around, so my dad filled drove us for the last leg.  Our first stop was the Upper Ramp at Harris, again, to listen for Whip-poor-wills.  We immediately heard five singing, along with a county lifer Chuck-will's-widow.  We briefly listened for flight calls, but Swainson's Thrush, one we had seen on the ground a few hours earlier, was the only call we heard.  Our next stop was Schenck Forest to find the resident Great Horned Owl.  No luck - all we heard were crickets.  We were about ready to call it quits, but we sat just one bird short of our goal.  We drove over to Mid Pines to hopefully hear a Barred Owl or a flight call.  After a few, silent minutes, hooting started wafting up from Yates Mill Park down the hill.  We sprung up to verify that what we were hearing was actually an owl (it was, a Barred) when a Grasshopper Sparrow decided to sing its whisper song just a few feet from us.  The expected Barred Owl and the completely unexpected Grasshopper were 135 and 136, just like that.  It was time to sleep.

This big day was the first time I've felt like we had a solid plan in place.  We had spreadsheets and lists for each destination we visited.  The only thing that we need to add to our planning is actual pre-day scouting - maybe next time.  I can't complain, though - 136 birds in one day is pretty solid.

The List.  Credit Sam Jolly.

Sidbury Road
1. Chuck-will’s-widow
McDonald's--Market St.
2. House Sparrow
Mason Inlet
3. Nelson’s Sparrow
4. Greater Yellowlegs
5. Black-bellied Plover (Gray Pleever)
6. Willet
7. Clapper Rail
8. Mourning Dove
9. Red-winged Blackbird
10. Great Egret 
11. Canada Goose
12. American Oystercatcher
13. Carolina Wren
14.  Northern Mockingbird
15. Boat-tailed Grackle
16. Common Grackle
17. Royal Tern
18.Fish Crow
19. Barn Swallow
20. Ring-billed Gull
21.  Laughing Gull
22. Sanderling
23. Double-crested Cormorant
24.  Least Sandpiper
25. Herring Gull
26. Lesser Black-backed Gull
27. Great Black-backed Gull
28. Ruddy Turnstone
29. Common Tern
30. Black Skimmer
31. Least Tern
32. Wilson’s Plover
33. Whimbrel
34. Semipalmated Plover
35. Piping Plover
36. Osprey
37. Red-breasted Merganser
38. House Finch
39. White Ibis
King’s Grant
40. Brown Thrasher
41. Gray Catbird
42. Carolina Chickadee
43. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
44. Chimney Swift
45. Tufted Titmouse
46. Eastern Bluebird
47. American Robin
Carolina Beach
48. Brown Pelican
49. Northern Parula
50. Prairie Warbler
51. Northern Cardinal
52. Yellow-throated Warbler
53. Brown-headed Nuthatch
54. Red-bellied Woodpecker
55. Pine Warbler
56. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
57. Red-headed Warbler
58. Downy Woodpecker
59. Summer Tanager
60. Yellow-rumped Warbler
61. American Crow
62. Blue Jay
63. Painted Bunting
64. Blackpoll Warbler
65. Red-eyed Vireo
66. Great-crested Flycatcher
67. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Side of the Road
68. Cattle Egret
Fort Fisher
69. Black Scoter
70. House Wren
71. Turkey Vulture
72. Tri-colored Heron
73. Marsh Wren
74. Snowy Egret
75. Purple Sandpiper
76. Forster’s Tern
77. Sandwich Tern
78. Tree Swallow
79. Caspian Tern
80. Savannah Sparrow
81. Seaside Sparrow
82. Orchard Oriole
Greenfield Lake
83. Mallard
84. Great-blue Heron
85. Cedar Waxwing
86. Green Heron
87. Black Vulture
88. Red-tailed Hawk
Smith Creek/ILM Airport
89. European Starling
90. Brown-headed Cowbird
91. Eastern Towhee
92. Prothonotary Warbler
Near Rose Hill
93. Red-shouldered Hawk
Howell Woods
94. Loggerhead Shrike
95. Purple Martin
96.  Rock Pigeon
97. Mississippi Kite
98. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
99. American Goldfinch
100. Black-throated Blue Warbler
101. Chipping Sparrow
102. Common Yellowthroat
103. Eastern Wood-Pewee
104. Acadian Flycatcher
105. Swainson’s Warbler
106. Pileated Woodpecker
107. Wood Thrush
108. White-breasted Nuthatch
109. Yellow-throated Vireo
110. White-throated Sparrow
111. White-eyed Vireo
112. Hooded Warbler
113. Indigo Bunting
114. Magnolia Warbler
115. Yellow-breasted Chat
116. Blue Grosbeak
117. Ovenbird
118. Killdeer
119.  Solitary Sandpiper
Yates Mill
120. Lesser Yellowlegs
121. Spotted Sandpiper
122. Eastern Phoebe
123. Eastern Kingbird
Mid Pines Road
124. Eastern Meadowlark
125. Bobolink
Swift Creek Bluffs
126. Louisiana Waterthush
127. Swainson’s Thrush
128. Veery
Harris Lake, NE of New Hill-Holleman Road
129. Black-and-white Warbler
130. Bald Eagle
131. Cliff Swallow
132. Ruddy Duck
Harris Lake, Upper Ramp
133. Wood Duck
134. Eastern Whip-poor-will
Mid Pines Road
135. Barred Owl
136. Grasshopper Sparrow

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Into the Second Century

Since the March 5th Red-necked Grebes, my Wake County list was stuck at a tantalizing 199 species of birds.  It seemed like nothing I could do would get me to break this arbitrary barrier, sending me into my second century of county listing.  I knew just filling in one of the big "holes" in my list could get me there - by nailing down a Blue-headed Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Chuck-will's-widow, or an Eastern Whip-poor-will.  None can be considered "common" in the area, though Blue-headed Vireo is fairly regular.  With migration finally coming into stride, it was only a matter of time.

I arose at 5:15 AM Saturday morning to finally find one of these birds - the nocturnal Eastern Whip-poor-will.  The game lands around Harris Lake seem like prime habitat, I just had to be there at the right time.  By the time I finally got to the area around 5:45, however, light was beginning to appear on the horizon.  I probably had a 10-minute window to find the bird before the morning chorus of diurnal species started up.  I sat on the hood of my car, looking at the moon, and listening to a few early-rising Eastern Towhees and Common Yellowthroats.  I was about to give up on the Whip when I heard its classic call coming from a patch of trees a hundred yards away - "whip-po-or-WILL! whip-po-or-WILL! whip-po-or-WILL!"  I instinctively jumped into my car and drove down the road to where it was singing.  To my surprise, the little nightjar flushed right in front of me.  It looked like a big brown moth, with a short tail and oversized, floppy wings.  Eastern Whip-poor-will - county bird #200.  I like the sound of that.
Looking back at the patch of trees the Eastern Whip-poor-will was calling from.
I had a solid two hours until the bird walk I was leading over at the county park started, so I wandered around the patchwork of habitats that make up the Harris Lake game lands.  Prairie Warblers were incredibly numerous in the early successional habitats, and I counted over two dozen birds.  Hooded Warblers and Ovenbirds called from the forest.  I watched a Great Egret, another new arrival, fly along the far shore of the lake, as a Bald Eagle and an Osprey hunted for fish.  I also managed to find a few Yellow-breasted Chats, those noisy warbler-ish, blackbird-ish misfits.  Just as I was leaving, I heard my first-of-year Eastern Wood-Pewees and a reclusive little Worm-eating Warbler.  51 species of birds in just two hours - one of my best solo lists to date.  But the weekend was just getting started.
Even though they are beyond-abundant down at Harris, Prairie Warblers are one of my favorite local breeders.  I mean look at him - he's spectacular.
Yellow-breasted Chat 
The bird walk I led went great, and we saw some good birds - at least 5 Summer Tanagers, a Yellow-throated Vireo, and a drake Wood Duck.  The real highlight (for me at least) was a Merlin that decided to fly over our party, just 30 or so feet above the ground.  It was my 150th bird at Harris!

Sunday morning, Sam and I decided to do a little birding at Lake Crabtree then head over to Schenck Forest.  Crabtree was decent - we picked up both yellowlegs, two flyby Blue-winged Teal, a heard-only Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a few heard-only Scarlet Tanagers - but other than that it was fairly uneventful.  We hoped Schenck Forest would be better.

After a few minutes, it didn't seem like it would.  All the usual suspects were there, but none of the migrants we were after seemed to show themselves.  We started wandering deeper into the forest.  Sam stopped suddenly, and said "Thrush".  I stopped too.  The bird flew down out of sight, and we waited.  And waited.  A little Ovenbird walked slowly along the forest floor, and I joked with Sam that he had just misidentified the Ovenbird as a thrush.  Sam was convinced it wasn't - that it was actually a Gray-cheeked Thrush.  I played the song off my phone just to see what would happen (my policy on playback is not to use it on breeding birds - but since GCTHs don't breed here, I thought I was safe to use it briefly).  Sure enough, the bird flitted up and landed just a few yards away.  Everything about it pointed to Gray-cheeked Thrush, an uncommon-to-rare migrant in these parts.

The thrush was all we needed to get the migrant ball rolling.  Soon we spotted a stunning male Black-throated Blue Warbler singing his heart out.  Two Louisiana Waterthrushes sang their piercing songs from the creek bed.  We continued downhill, and I heard the distinctive song of the Black-throated Green Warbler, a bird common in the mountains but uncommon this far east.  Sam and I jumped across the creek to track down the noisy little bird, and we looked back to see Edward running down the trail to meet us.  I signaled for him to come up quietly.  The BT Green popped into view after a few minutes, giving us all one of the best views we could ask for.  Soon a flock of three Black-and-white Warblers and a singing Prothonotary Warbler moved in to join him.  We ended up with 11 species of warblers at Schenck, a pretty good number for this area.  Just as we were heading into the parking lot, we spotted four little blackbirds in one of the pastures.  They were my first-of-year Bobolinks, a great way to close out my weekend birding.  One lifer, one state bird, and a slew of new migrants.  Let's hope my big day next weekend goes this well.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Birding Tortuguero

Tortuguero National Park lies in the northeast corner of Costa Rica, a vast swath of dense rainforest penetrated by only a few caños, which are slow-moving backwaters (what we in NC would just call "creeks").  Its limited access makes Tortuguero a haven for an incredible, diverse array of wildlife unlike anything I've ever seen.

Spider Monkey, one of the most conspicuous animals in the area.
The first thing most visitors notice in Tortuguero are the monkeys - Spider, Howler, and Capuchin Monkeys can be found all over the park.  Even though they're not birds, I have to admit that they were pretty cool.  Also present were massive crocodiles that made jumping in the water to cool off suddenly seem like a bad idea.  Blue Morpho butterflies (one of the few insects I can safely ID) flew lazily around the rivers and canals.

But I wasn't focused on sighting these non-avian animals.  I wanted birds.  Montezuma Oropendolas, the golden-tailed brethren of the Orioles, are common in the area, and thus were the first birds I saw that morning.  The males pick a tall palm tree to perch in, then start singing and swinging around upside down, which apparently impresses the females.  It was quite a sight, and reminded me of the crazy Arfak Astrapia video I saw at the Birds of Paradise exhibit back in Raleigh.

We spent the morning exploring the park from a small john boat, led by our expert guide Angelo.  He was glad to have guests who were just as enthusiastic about birds as he was, and he stopped at every little mixed flock along the banks of the canals.  My first lifer of the day was found this way - a Northern Waterthrush, beginning its long journey northward.  Northern Waterthrush is a transient warbler that passes through NC every year in decent numbers, but I've never been able to track one down.  Fortunately, this guy was very cooperative.  Also in this flock was a Red-eyed Vireo and two Olive-backed Euphonias.  A Green Kingfisher flushed from along the bank - the first of 5(!) kingfisher species we would see that day.  Also very common in Tortuguero are Little Blue Herons and Bare-throated Tiger-Herons - birds that never seem to get old.

Bare-throated Tiger Heron
The next lifer of the day was another pesky North American species that had always eluded me - Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We spotted one sunning in the bank of a small island, on which a few Anhingas were also drying their wings.  Soon after, we spotted a Common Black-Hawk soaring in a kettle with some vultures and two Magnificent Frigatebirds, both lifers.  We veered off from the main canal and entered the national park.  Tortuguero is exactly what I envisioned a tropical forest to look like - huge palms lined the shores of the caños, with the impenetrable lushness of the forest stretching out behind.  I was amazed.  And I was excited - I knew great birds were out there waiting.

Northern Jaçana, a noisy sandpiper relative.
We rode past dozens of colorful Northern Jaçanas, a shorebird with a preference for the weedy margins of swamps and marshes.  We rounded the corner and began hearing a snappy, energetic call coming from the river's margins.  These were male Red-capped Manakins displaying in hidden lek sites.  A lek is a place where males gather to impress the females - usually by dancing or displaying.  Angelo steered the boat right up to the shore, and I caught a glimpse of two of these spectacular little birds.  These two particular Red-capped Manakins were jumping around and dancing on different branches in a small "arena" to impress hidden females.  Red-capped Manakin is possibly my favorite bird I've ever seen, and watching these crimson-capped fellas dance around will be seared into my memory for quite a while.

Red-capped Manakins displaying at their lek site.

We continued  to work our way through the park's waterways.  A large raptor was perched above the river, and we cruised in slowly to investigate.  To our surprise, it was a spectacular Ornate Hawk-Eagle, the second eBird record for the area and the first one Angelo had ever seen.  It sat still, focusing on a basilisk lizard crawling along the shore.  It was definitely the coolest raptor I've ever seen.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a pretty menacing bird.
Next, I spotted two King Vultures soaring up high with the familiar Turkey Vultures.  King Vultures are actually beautiful (yes, actually), with their white underwings and colorful head.  A population may have once existed in Florida, but this has never been confirmed.  We also had excellent views of a Ringed Kingfisher, which is essentially a larger version of the Belted Kingfisher that lives in eastern North America.
King Vulture soaring above the rainforest.
Ringed Kingfisher, with its comically-large head.
That afternoon, we went out for a few hours to go kayaking along Caño Mora, a narrow creek that winds its way deep into the jungle.  Unfortunately, I did not feel comfortable bringing all of my camera gear onto the open kayak, so I don't have any photos of the birds I'm about to describe - you'll just have to take my word for it.  While we were watching a mixed flock... er... I mean mixed troop... of Capuchin and Howler Monkeys working their way through the forest, I spotted an immature Barred Forest-Falcon perched on an open branch.  We heard some raucous calls coming from the forest, and Angelo called out "Great Green Macaw" just as three of these beautiful (and endangered) parrots flew overhead.  Great Green Macaws use their massive bills to crack seeds that we would need heavy machinery to break open.  Habitat loss from deforestation has been a major factor in their decline, but luckily they are recovering in the remote corners of Costa Rica.

Next, Angelo spotted two trogons for us - first a female Black-headed followed shortly by a beautiful Slaty-tailed Trogon.  Both were lifers, and were spectacular.  Trogons are one of the most beautiful families of birds - and though these are no Resplendent Quetzals (as you will see soon enough), they are still quite a sight.  Surrounded by the vast, steamy quiet of the rainforest, these sightings were even more memorable.

Angelo really wanted to show me an American Pygmy Kingfisher, which we unfortunately failed to turn up on the paddle.  So, he took us out in the main boat to try and find one.  First he spotted a Boat-billed Heron in its usual roost, a alien-looking relative of the Night-Herons.

Boat-billed Heron - if you look hard enough, you might see it...
But still no Kingfisher.  We had already seen Amazon, Green, Belted, and Ringed Kingfishers that day... why not go for five?  Six are known to live in the park, and the two that evaded us were the smallest: American Pygmy and Green-and-rufous.  These two species prefer narrow, shaded creeks away from the main channels, so we had to go deep into the rainforest to try and find them.  Just as we were turning around to return for the evening, Angelo stopped the boat.  We heard chattering coming from a small slough off to the side.  We all peered in to see a stunning Green-and-rufous Kingfisher just a few yards away, seemingly oblivious to our presence.  Click on the link above - you have to check this one out!

I can't believe how long this post was for just one day of birding, but it was an incredible one.  It was one of my top two (yes, the other one happened later in Costa Rica) days of birding, and will probably forever remain in the forefront of my memory.  Having the opportunity to see such a diverse and rich ecosystem was amazing!