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Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Great Day of Winter Birding

Hoary Redpoll (Photo by Ann Reeves)
          In this day and age of Internet birding it is often easy to track down individual birds that you would like to pursue. That is exactly what Sharon and I did on Wednesday. We journeyed to the town of Oaks in Montgomery County in hopes of finding the reported Orange-crowned Warbler that has been hanging around for quite some time. We parked at the Oaks Expo Center and walked across the street to the access path of the Schuylkill River trail. As we meadered down the access path I spotted some Buffleheads in the river and a larger duck with them. So I continued down the trail to reach the river, meanwhile Sharon had stopped a little ways back. As I watched the Lesser Scaup that was among the Bufflehead, Sharon called to me and said "Shouldn't we be looking at the little birds in the brush?" So I turned around and the first bird that Sharon saw flitting around was our target bird, the Orange-crowned Warbler. This warbler lacks wing bars, has very light streaking on the underparts, it can resemble a fall Tennessee Warbler except for the yellow undertail coverts and the orange patch on the crown is usually not visible. They also have a thin pointed bill.

Orange-crowned Warbler (Photos of warbler by Nick Pulcinella)

          After finding the bird so quickly we walked the trail a little, but it was icy so we headed to the Limerick Outlet stores since we were in the area. Fortunately, we didn't find anything to purchase so went to Wegman's for lunch. On the way home we decided to stop at the Philadelphia Naval Yard to see if we could get a look at the Hoary Redpoll that was found by George Armistead a few days previous. I had gone the two days before with various results. The first day I found no redpolls. The next day I found three Common Redpolls, so today I was hoping for the big prize. (Please be advise that since the original writing of this post the Naval Yard now has restricted access.)
Two of the five Common Redpolls (Photo by Ann Reeves)
          When we arrived and were parking the car we noticed a lady with a camera, so we figured she must be looking for the bird also. It turned out to be Ann Reeves and she was looking for the redpolls, only she was looking for the Common Redpolls as she had already seen the Hoary with George the first day it was found.
          Well, we walked around for about a half an hour before we heard the redpolls come into the birch trees, their favorite spot on the base. We tracked them down and did some bushwhacking and found five Common Redpolls and a nice look at the Hoary Redpoll.
Hoary Redpoll (Photo by Ann Reeves)

           Both redpolls were new birds for me in Philadelphia County and the warbler was new for me in Montgomery County. So thanks to the reporting of eBird and the Internet, it was a great day to be out. Just as we were leaving the naval yard it started snowing. The timing worked out today on all counts.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Travel Tip for Texas - Big Bend National Park

Chisos Mountains in Big Bend NP
Big Bend National Park in Texas offers a range of surprises, and many plants and animal end – or begin – their native ranges here, ranges that extend in all directions transgressing into different ecological worlds. Any one of the three assortments of habitats here – desert, river, and mountains – could easily justify the trip to one of the nations most remote national parks.

Bound by the Santiago Mountains on the north and the Rio Grande River and Mexico on the southern side, portions of the northern Chihuahua Desert lie within the park’s 800,000 acres of territory. The jagged peaks of the Chisos Mountains cut across the heart of Big Bend territory and this is where birders usually head in search of the Colima Warbler, which is the only reliable spot in the U.S. to find this species.

Target Bird - Colima Warbler
The preferred nesting habitat is in lush growth of oak, maple, and pinyon pine with extensive grass and leaf litter on the ground where the actual nest is constructed. In the Chisos Mountains, this translates to the north-facing slopes of humid canyons above 6,000 feet.
Scaled Quail
The Pinnacles Trail and Boot Canyon is where you are most likely to find the Colima Warbler in April or May. This is when a birder needs to be in good physical condition. The Pinnacles Trail is a steep climb and Big Bend can be awfully hot by the time the warblers arrive in mid-April. I recommend an early start on the trails. An alternative to climbing the Pinnacles is the Laguna Meadows Trail and the aptly-named Colima Trail that connects back to the Pinnacles for a knee-busting descent. Either way, this is a bird that makes you work to tick it off your life list.
Greater Roadrunner
Thankfully, some of the world’s best scenery awaits the birder making this pilgrimage. Once in an open spot near some grass and trees, it’s a relatively simple matter to find the target. The Colima Warbler has a distinctive song with a rapid trill. Listening to a recording can train your ear to listen for the proper tune. Birders differ in opinion about the ethics of using a tape playback of the song to call in birds in the field. It certainly works, but can potentially stress and confuse nesting birds. I prefer not to use any playback.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Other birds in the park include many common western species, such as Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Canyon Towhee, Roadrunner, Common Nighthawk, Lesser Nighthawk, Poorwill, White-throated Swift, Black-chinned, Rufous, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. 

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren Nest
With more than 20 distinct plant communities and more than 1200 species of flora in Big Bend, there’s a surprise around every corner. I have found Zone-tailed and Gray Hawk within the park boundaries.
Zone-tailed Hawk (Photo by Dave Eberly)
There are at least 70 varieties of cactus, more than in any other park, and the river and mountainous regions flourish with wildflowers in the springtime. There are almost as many reptilian species here than in the Everglades, and birding enthusiasts flock to Big Bend to spot more than 450 bird species amid the various landscapes.
Blue Grosbeak

Canyon Towhee

A surprise sculpture in the middle of nowhere
Rio Grande River - Mexico on left

Lodging in Big Bend National park is limited to the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The only lodge in Big Bend, this comfortable lodge rests at the base of the Chisos Mountain range. Another place you could stay in Big Bend National Park is on the south side. Ten Bits Ranch, which sits high within the Chihuahuan Desert and offers memorable views of the region.
Christine, Sharon, & Chris Guarente at the Chisos Mountain Lodge  

Of course there are many other things to do in the park. Hiking, float trips down the river (you do need a passport for this) and just driving around the immense area of the park and sightseeing are some of the attractions.

Tarantula on the visitor center wall
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Two-tailed Swallowtail
So enjoy a trip to Big Bend National Park. Most people go in the winter months when the weather is cooler but we birders are a strange lot. So, I would recommend going in April for your best chance of finding the Colima Warbler.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Travel Tip for Virginia - Chincoteague NWR

            For travelers heading to the Delmarva Peninsula, a visit to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a must. A little to far for a day trip, you should plan to stay at least one night in the town of Chincoteague. I would recommend the Best Western Hotel which is the closest hotel to the refuge. 

            Chincoteague NWR, located primarily on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, consists of more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest. Chincoteague Refuge, originally established in 1943 to provide habitat for migratory birds (with an emphasis on conserving greater snow geese), today provides habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and song birds, as well as other species of wildlife and plants. More than 320 species of birds are known to occur on the refuge.

Marbled Godwit and Whimbrels
               We usually travel there during President's Day weekend when the rates are cheaper and the visitors are few. However, the wildlife is still abundant, with many waterfowl, both species of loons and many Gannets. Egrets and herons are still around and the occasional White Pelican has been known to make an appearance there. You might be surprised, but there are still quite a few shorebirds present in February. These include Black-bellied Plover, American Oystercatcher, both yellowlegs, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Dunlin and more. A few warblers are also present including Yellow-rumped, Palm and Pine Warblers plus Am Pipits.

            The refuge is open from sunrise until well past sunset so you have plenty of time to visit. There are two roads that you are able to drive around the refuge but one is closed most of the day and only opens at 3PM. However, this provides a great opportunity for the walkers and bikers who can use the 3 mile trail without the interference of auto traffic.
Ponies at Chincoteague
             Another treat for wildlife watchers are the Chincoteague Ponies. Originally, the ponies made they way to the island after a Spanish Clipper shipwrecked off the coast.  The modern-day descendants of those domestic horses are wild and have adapted to their environment. Prior to the refuge's establishment in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continues ownership to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge land.

      Although I have only birded the area in May one time, this would be the ideal time for spring migrants. There are many warblers but you also get to search through massive numbers of shorebirds. I would not recommend going in July and August as the bugs are atrocious.
             After your birding adventures are through you can stroll around town and shop your heart out at the many gift shops and restaurants that are available. I think you will enjoy your stay at Chincoteague and highly recommend a trip there soon.
Pony showing large stomach from eating salt grass

              Those of you who have read this far might be interested in trying to find a problem with one of the photos presented in this blog about Chincoteague NWR.                    

Friday, December 12, 2014

Goshawk at Hawk Mountain

             For those of you who love hawk watching you can take a look at a blog by Jerry Liguori about the lightly marked Northern Goshawk Holly Merker and Kim Steininger photographed while counting at Hawk Mountain in early December. Nice job at spotting this bird ladies. See Jerry's blog at:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Travel Tip for Phoenix, Arizona - Gilbert Water Ranch

View of part of the Gilbert Water Ranch
      For those of you who might be traveling to the Phoenix, Arizona area I just wanted to share with you a great birding site in Gilbert, AZ. The Gilbert Water Ranch is a waste water treatment plant like no other that I have visited and, I hate to admit, I have visited many. The ranch has several walking trails that surround large pools of treated water. The water, being in the middle of a desert, attracts a very large variety of bird life. 
Long-billed Dowitchers

Abert's Towhee
           The birds found there include many of the typical desert birds but there are also some exotic species to be found there. I have found Rosy-faced Lovebirds and the wierd "Go Away Bird" from Africa.
Gray Go-Away Bird (Photo from Internet)

            The trails are flat and in great shape so its an easy walk and you can easily spend 3 hours there. 

Sharon Tracking down a Green-tailed Towhee
             Here is a link to the Gilbert Water Ranch which would be useful if you ever get out to that area. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cozumel Trip - by Gary Becker

Our View from Balcony

          On our last trip to Cozumel over 5 years ago, I experienced the worse case of seasickness ever.  We took a boat from the mainland on very choppy seas and my wife(who is a nurse and very experienced  in these things) said she had never seen anyone turn my shade of green so quickly.  Fortunately the vertigo did not kick in until the voyage was almost over so I was only dying for a short time.  On our return trip two weeks ago we flew to Cozumel directly without  the boat crossing adventure.                                                                
         The island was popularized by Jacques Cousteau back in the 60’s when he discovered its great reefs and underwater wildlife.  Unlike Jacques we don’t scuba but we do enjoy snorkeling.  We were very impressed by the great reefs all along the western side of the island which faces Mexico.  Our hotel had a man made beach but the exciting feature was the gorgeous reef just 50 feet from our room. The restaurant in the hotel bordered on the ocean and large waves would crash against its clear Plexiglas  railings while we dined.  From the restaurant people threw food scraps to the fish and crabs while the tourists snorkeled amongst the throngs of excited fish.  We were treated to a wide variety of tropical fish but had additional surprises including schools of squid, spiny lobsters, sting rays, very colorful crabs and Moray eels. 

          One particular colorful eel was feeding around the rocks just off the restaurant.   It was a beautiful lime green color with yellow spots.  I mentioned it to one of the divers who was seated on the beach as I left the ocean.  He claimed to be a Navy diver and after listening to my description of the eel, he asserted that that was no eel but a sea snake.  Having seen several Cousteau episodes with Jacques and his divers swimming among schools of these snakes, I doubted his story since these adventures were set in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  On our return to Pennsylvania I consulted our local Herpetologist Gary Stoltz who confirmed that to date there are no sea snakes in the Atlantic. Good news since they are deadly poisonous but not aggressive! 
          Although Cozumel is a fairly large island(29 miles long and 9 miles wide) the interior is not accessible. The AAA guide to Mexico describes it as “comprised of patches of insect ridden jungle, expanses of thorny uninviting scrub and scattered Mayan ruins none of them well preserved.  It’s a desolate landscape that makes the islands beaches all the more inviting”.  My birding was  therefore confined to the hotel and the surrounding shore areas.  
     The most plentiful birds were the Great-tailed Grackles, Tropical Kingbirds, Tropical Mockingbirds and Warblers.   The Tropical Kingbirds were so numerous that one mile long strip of road  had six or seven sitting on the electric lines with one bird between each set of poles. 
Tropical Kingbird
        The Tropical Mockingbirds were as ubiquitous as their northern cousins in the U.S. but the Northerns aren’t found in Cozumel.  Although not much different from the Northern, the Tropical has much more white in the tail tip and less white on the extended wings.
Tropical Mockingbird
           I did have one Golden Warbler which is Cozumel’s Yellow Warbler variant(looking just like a Yellow Warbler except for its rufous cap).  
Yellow Warbler (Golden Subspecies)
        The most common warblers were the Palm, Redstart and Yellow-throated Warblers.  The Yellow-throated  were so common I frequently was able to identify their chip note.  They would hang out in the palm trees in the front of our hotel room and then land on our balcony.  
Yellow-throated Warbler

             On the day after our arrival we took a day trip to Ponta Sur Park.  This  wildlife preserve has a population of fresh water crocodiles so we headed for the  marshes hoping  to catch a glimpse of the furtive reptiles.  None were apparent until one of the guides gave a loud whistle and a single croc popped up about 15 feet from us off the boardwalk.  After departing the marsh we ended up at the Celaria lighthouse at the most southern tip of the island.  Here we found great fragments of both brain and branching coral much of it polished by the ocean and quite beautiful. Although not a swimming beach because of the heavy surf there were some shore birds hanging out including small numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones,  a Solitary Sandpiper and a Little Blue Heron. 
American Golden-Plover
            After checking out the lighthouse we drove past several small ponds one containing a Northern Jacana and arrived at La Playa mas Hermosa(“The Most Beautiful Beach”).  Here we spent some time snorkeling and got to see more lobsters, eels,  sea urchins and many colorful fish. 
Sea Urchins
           We had lunch on the beach under an open pavilion.  Someone had cracked open a large coconut which attracted Great-tailed Grackles, Bananaquits, and Yellow-throated Warblers. 
Great-tailed Grackle

 This day-long adventure ended when our caravan of 10 Polaris ATV’s headed back to our respective hotels.  We tourists were driving these somewhat  beaten-up vehicles several of which(including ours) had no rear or side view mirrors, head or tail lights and somewhat unpredictable functioning gas pedals. 
Stunt Driver - Gary Becker
             Our tour guide merrily took us through the back streets of the main town amidst mopeds, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians in the fading light at dusk. This hair-raising venture was enough to convince me not to rent a car and instead  go it alone.  In addition our trusty Triple A guide warned “that if stopped for a serious moving violation, your vehicle may be impounded and you will be asked to accompany the police officer to the station to pay a fine.(Of course fines for minor infractions can often be settled on the spot, in cash; in Mexico a bribe is a common way of taking care of such situations).  Fortunately taxis were all over the place and people were very friendly and crime was almost nonexistent(so we were told and I believe it).  Consequently we either took a cab or walked.  The walkway into town was very pleasant and followed the ocean, so there were ample opportunities to do some birding. Along this stretch of ocean I found Magnificant Frigatebirds, Snowy and Great Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Black-bellied and Golden Plovers, Great Blue Herons, White-crowned sparrows, and Warblers.
Magnificent Frigatebird

Yellow-crowned Night Heron
            The warblers would hang out at some grassy areas that were being watered with “recycled water”. These watered areas although drawing in birds chased away some of the tourists as the water still smelled foul.  They would turn off the sprinklers once the tourists arrived from the boats but since I got there early in the morning I was subjected to the stench if I wanted to bird the areas.  A few days later we took a taxi to Chankanaab Lagoon Park. There was another reef here for snorkeling and a botanical garden which provided some birding opportunities. One beautiful  blackbird appeared in a bamboo forest and provided me with some good looks and some good photos.

Melodious Blackbird

          Besides the Tropical Flycatcher, Tropical Mockingbird, Northern Jacana and Golden Warbler this was my 5th life bird for the trip: a Melodious Blackbird. There was a Tequilla distillery in the park and something attracted warblers and vireos to the trees overlooking this site. I came back to the area several times and discovered Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Redstarts, Magnolia and more Yellow-throated Warblers  Red-eyed Vireos and a Gray Catbird.  There were some enclosed piers leading out from the beach for the “swim with the dolphins” concession. The dolphin handlers kept rewarding the mammals with fish which in turn brought in lots of terns, mainly Royal and a few Sandwich terns and lots of Laughing Gulls.
Royal and Sandwich Tern

          On the morning of our departure I was standing on our balcony watching some of the cruise ships pulling into dock when a small flock of 5 Roseate Spoonbills flew past. I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture of what could have been a neat photo-ending to our  travels. Anyway after breakfast we had a few hours before departing and so we again explored the reef off our hotel which besides the varied critters had a sunken airplane, an anchor and some canons rusting away in the waters.  We were told the plane was dropped there for some movie made years before. It was an eerie spectacle to end the week in what was a bit of a tropical paradise.