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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Butterflies and Birding

 
Regal Fritillary
            Sharon and I decided to go to Fort Indiantown Gap (a National Guard training center) on July 3rd to participate in the annual search for the Regal Fritillary butterfly. It is only found in a very limited habitat of disturbed land. Since the land there is used for live ammo practice (grenades) and maneuver practice (tanks) the land is definitely disturbed by the tanks and also by fire caused by the explosives. The successive regrowth of the grasses and forbs make for the habitat that the Regal Butterfly requires. 
            We left the house at 7:30AM and stopped at Memorial Lake State Park just outside the base to search for a few new county birds. We didn't have too much time so we didn't see much. We got to the base and had a 10 minute orientation about the base and than we caravanned to the area where the butterflies live. We were expecting about 15-20 people at this event but there were at least 150.
 
Just some of the participants
           Once we arrived at the site, the Regal Fritillaries were everywhere. They differ from other fritillaries by having a dark, almost black hindwing. 

Regal Fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillary for comparison
          We were also treated to other sights besides butterflies. We were shown Spotted and Wood Turtles like the one below.
Wood Turtle - They file a notch in the shell to track the turtle
          Of course a day in the field is not complete without a snake or two.
Ring-necked Snake
          The habitat was also good for field birds and I was told that Chats and Prairie Warblers would be seen. Well, that didn't happen but I did find a male and female Blue Grosbeak.
Male Blue Grosbeak
           The total walk around the fields was about 1.7 miles and lasted about 2 hours. Halfway through the walk we were provided with water. The trip was very well organized and I highly recommend that if you have the chance, sign up. Two more trips are scheduled for July 10th and 11th.
Sharon enjoying the trail

Eastern Tailed-Blue on preferred habitat - a Sneaker

            After the trip we enjoyed a picnic lunch on base and than headed over to Swatara State Park to do some birding. It was only about 10 miles away but the GPS put us on this dirt road in the middle of nowhere.  We at least expected to find a park office to get a map.  We assumed we were not in the correct place and left but not before getting a Redstart and Hooded Warbler. We headed back towards the base and did a little sightseeing of the equipment on display around the base.  





         Just outside the base we found the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. A very impressive cemetery which reminded us of the ones we saw in Europe for the American soldiers killed during WWII.





          Since we were out this far west we decided to keep going to the Susquehanna River area. While there, we found more state parks to add to our goal of visiting all the state parks in PA. They were Jim Ibberson Conservation Area and Boyd Big Tree Conservation Area where I added five new birds to my Dauphin County list, including E. Meadowlark, Scarlet Tanager and Cooper's Hawk.
          From there we went to Fort Hunter on the Susquehanna River and did a little sightseeing around the mansion, mill areas and covered bridge. It was now getting late in the afternoon so I started heading home, but Sharon said she didn't want to take the Turnpike from Harrisburg so we started to head back in the direction of Indiantown Gap. We made another pass around Memorial Lake and walked across the dam but no new birds were spotted.
          When we stopped at the park office at Memorial Lake, Sharon found a map for Swatara State Park and saw a few pictures from the brochure and decided we had to go back. There was a photo of a bridge that we wanted to find and looking at the map we decided it was on the very road that we were on earlier today but didn't go far enough. This bridge was part of the rail trail.

Bridge over Swatara Creek
           Now it was about 7:15 PM and we once again headed back to Indiantown Gap because that was the only place we saw during the day that had a restaurant.  We went to have dinner at Funck's Restaurant and by the time we were finished eating it was 8:30PM and getting dark. So one last suggestion was to stop at Tomstown Rd on base and wait for dark. We arrived at Tomstown Rd in the middle of the woods and a few birds were still singing in the twilight, but Eastern Wood-Pewee was one of them. I got out of the car to listen for other calling birds because I knew this spot was famous for Chuck-wills-widow. While we were standing around in the dark another call pulled up and asked if I was looking for the Chuck's and I said yes. We introduced ourselves and found out Dave Yeany came all the way from Pittsburgh to find this bird. We waited around until about 9:10PM when finally two Whip-poor-wills started calling and then after another ten minutes the Chuck-wills-widow made his appearance by calling about 100 yards down the road.
            When we started the day leaving the house at 7:30 this morning it was not our intention to stay out for 16 hours but it was such a fun day that we were glad we did.
Chuck-wills-widow (photo from Internet)
           Other butterflies seen were Mourning Cloak, Black Swallowtail, Cabbage White, Clouded Sulpher and another type Sulpher, Silvery Checkerspot, and Silver-Spotted Skipper.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pelagic Trip on Holland America Cuise Ship

      


          I was browsing the internet one day and happened upon the "Vacations to Go" website which I occasionally look at for deals. Well, I saw a deal for a five day repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver for only $299/person on Holland America's Noordam. So I appealed to Sharon's adventerous side and asked what she thought of the idea of a pelagic trip on a cruise ship. She liked the idea so we booked the cruise. Since the price was a bargain we decided to upgrade to a balcony suite in case the weather turned bad and the birding was limited.  We would still be able to observe the ocean and find some birds. Since the cruise would spend four full days at sea, May 5th to 9th, I was using the ship as my personal pelagic trip. After doing some research as to the possible birds to be found, I was hoping to get four life birds on the ocean and one in Vancouver.
         We flew into San Diego the day before the cruise and spent some time walking around the waterfront. We visited the USS Midway aircraft carrier which was docked there as a museum. We also found the Bob Hope Memorial and the statue of the famous kiss in time square of the sailor and the woman.
USS Midway


Bob Hope doing his act for the troops
          The next afternoon we boarded the ship and were having an afternoon snack before the ship set sail. I was sitting at the table and Sharon was in line getting her salad when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and it took a few seconds for me to realize it was Jim and Linda Waldie, members of BCDC, who now live in Cape May. What a surprise! They were here as part of a group of birders looking for seabirds, the same as I was doing. Jim invited me to join the group led by Paul Lehman and I didn't hesitate to take him up on the offer. 
Jim and Linda Waldie
          We then set sail around 4 PM and quickly the birders took over the front of the promenade deck and set up their scopes. We weren't even out of the harbor and there were a few Brown Boobies flying around and landing on nearby buoys. Just to clarify things ahead of time, none of these bird photos are mine. My little point and shoot camera would never get photos like these. But all species shown were seen by me.
Brown Booby
           We birded until dusk and identified the following species. Black-footed Albatross (several), Pink-footed Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters, Black-vented Shearwater, Northern Fulmars, Black Storm-Petrel, and Scripp's Murrelets.
Pink-footed Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Sooty Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater
Scripp's Murrelet
           None of these species were life birds for me but it was certainly fun to see them again. We called it a day and headed to bed to get up on deck before sunrise. During the night the winds picked up to 40 knots. The next morning I walked out onto the deck and was blasted by the 40 knot wind coming right at the bow of the ship plus the cruising speed of the ship was 18 knots so the head winds amounted to 58 knots. It was quite chilly to say the least. To add to that, the ocean now had 15 foot swells. Fortunately the ship was very large and handled the sea well. We were still able to use our scopes without to much vibration. 
           Because of the rough seas, the captain of the ship closed off the promenade deck, the deck passengers use to jog or walk around the ship. So it was suggested the day before that if this happened just go out on the deck anyway and no one will bother you. So for the next two days we had the deck to ourselves and didn't have to contend with the fellow passengers. Sharon wasn't happy with the closure because she enjoys walking the deck but she entertained herself by taking culinary arts and computer classes.        
           With the rough seas and high winds Paul said that this would be a good day for Pterodroma Petrels. It turned out to be just that. I arrived on deck about 6am, before sunrise, and birds were already flying. We were seeing a lot of the same birds we saw the previous day. Around 8am people were split between the port and starboard sides of the ship. Fortunately I was on the starboard side when the call went out of a Laysan Albatross. When I searched the area I saw a light colored bird and watched it and thought to myself "This doesn't look right for an albatross". It turned out to be an intermediate phase Northern Fulmer but fortunately the Laysan flew right into my field of view and I was able to see the massive size difference and the stark brown and white appearance of the albatross. I was hoping that this would be the first lifer of the trip as this was my 700th ABA area life bird.
Laysan Albatross
Lifer # 700 for the ABA Area
           As the morning proceeded the birds came at a quick pace. After watching all the Sooty Shearwaters someone yelled "Murphy's Petrel".  
 Murphy's Petrel on rough seas.
          It took me a while to find and follow the bird because it would go in and out of the swells and would be hidden for some time. But I was finally able to see the wings that were bent at the wrist versus the straighter wings of the Sooty, plus the small silvery primary patches and the whitish chin patch which was very difficult to see. My second life bird, #701.
           Flocks of Sabine's Gulls were seen frequently and one flock had as many as 100 gulls. I love the look of these gulls and they are easy to identify at quite a distance due to the tri-colored upper wing pattern.
Sabine's Gulls
           My next life bird, #702, was a little easier to find but still a challenge to follow through the swells. The Cook's Petrel was more conspicuous then the darker shearwaters and petrels. The light gray body and wings stood out a little more against the darker background of the ocean. Although rather far away I could make out the details of the bird and later I would see more Cook's, in closer to  the ship. 

Cook's Petrel - light color with gray hood
       The cook's was an overall light gray on the upper parts and white underparts and a black eye patch. The black outline on the underwings was very thin versus the Hawaiian Petrel pictured below.


Hawaiian Petrel
 
           Later in the day, I was treated to a bird that I didn't really expect to see on this trip, a Hawaiian Petrel. This appeared to be a larger bird than the Cook's Petrel and the outstanding feature to me was the snow white underparts that just made this bird stand out among the crowd. The white underparts contrasted drastically with the dark brown upperparts. The bird also displayed long thin wings and a long tapered tail. This was my final life bird, #703, on this cruise but I achieved 100% success with the lifers that I predicted that I could find. 

         Other birds seen on the cruise were Leach's Storm-Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Red-necked Phalaropes, Arctic Terns, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklet. Interesting sightings that I really didn't expect to see were a flock of 44 Green-winged Teals passing the ship some 35 miles off the coast of Washington and two large flocks of Whimbrel also far off the coast.
        One final note. We spent the next week in and around Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia. While on Vancouver Island we made a special effort to get to the Victoria airport in search of Sky Lark. I was surprised at how easy we were able to find the bird. We arrived at dusk and planned to stay overnight at the Best Western. So we quickly shot over to the airport to scope out the situation. We could hear the Sky Lark performing their flight songs but couldn't find them due to the low light. The next morning we arrived early and heard the birds calling and were fortunate to see a few land right on the runway and offered excellent viewing. Lifer #704. 
             I would highly recommend this cruise to anyone. How often can you do a pelagic birding trip with three meals a day plus other snacks, have your own room, plus entertainment and a casino after dark. Repositioning cruises along this west coast usually occur the last week of April and the first two weeks of May. So if you are the type who want to see pelagic birds but tend to get seasick this might be an option to ponder.
             Some miscellaneous photos follow:
Lyn Canyon Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver

Olympic Torch in Vancouver

Common Murre in Washington Waters

Red-breasted Sapsucker near Whistler

Glaucous Gull on beach at Ocean Shores, Washington

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cuba: Endemics and More

Michael De Rosa
Cuba: Endemics and More
 
 
Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean and has the largest number of bird species. It has a varied mix of Caribbean, Central and South American birds, and migrants. At present, 24-species are recognized as being endemic to the island. I was fortunate enough to see half of them. I spent two days at Playa Larga. From there I went birding at the Cienaga de Zapata, the largest wetlands in the Caribbean.  I also did a day trip to Las Terrazas, an eco-village about an hour from Havana. 

Cuban Trogon: This common endemic is the national bird of Cuba. Known locally as the tocororo, after its song.  Not shy and frequently seen in the open.
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Cuban Tody: Likes shady spots and is often heard before being spotted. Endemic
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Cuban Green Woodpecker: Endemic

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Cuban Oriole: Endemic recently split from the black-cowled oriole. It is in
a bottle-brush tree originally endemic to Australia, but now found all over in the tropics.


Zapata Wren: A “soft” image of the most restricted of Cuban endemics. Found reliably only in a small area of Zapata. A couple, our guides, and I spent over an hour playing its call to attract one of the wrens. It played hide and seek with us. At one point I found myself running, tripping, re-gaining my balance as my water bottle went flying for what turned out to be a false alarm. Then, there it was at our feet, so close that I could not focus my telephoto lens. I could feel and hear it as it flew by my face.


Zapata Sparrow: Only a little bit less restricted range than the wren. Shortly after I took its photo, a catbird landed in the same bush.


Fernandina’s Flicker: My guide knew exactly where there was a nest of this endemic. He tapped on the trunk of a palm tree, and the male checked us out. Later we saw it, and the female as they went looking for food.




Yellow-headed Warbler: This is one of two warblers endemic to Cuba. All told 32-species of warblers have been seen in Cuba.
Cuban Grassquit: This endemic is common if you know where to find them. We were given very precise directions-make a right turn and check out the yard of the first wooden house on the right. When we described the bird to the owner he said the tomeguins are usually around here. And sure enough a small flock landed on a bush.

Blue-Headed Quail Dove: This endemic is relatively easy to see in Zapata, but rare to see three at
time. My guide would find the gourds used to make maracas, break them open and leave then 
for quail-doves.
 
Cuban Parrot: This  sub-species is considered rare and vulnerable.
Also saw the Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Vireo, and the wings of the Cuban Screech-Owl as it broke from its nest hole..
Heard the Cuban Pygmy Owl, but he was not able to bring it in with its call. 
The following are some non-endemic Cuban birds.



Great Lizard-Cuckoo 
 American Kestrel-white morph

 West Indian woodpecker



West Indian Woodpecker in the same tree as the oriole.

 Grey-headed Quail Doves are rare  except in Zapata

Common Moorhens



Common Gallinule

Loggerhead Kingbird

Stripe-headed Tanager (spindalis)
 Stygian Owl: My guide knew the general location of where this one roosted-took awhile before he located it.

 La Sagra's Flycatcher


Emerald. The closest we got to the Bee Hummingbird was my guide hearing its
characteristic wing beats as it flew by.

Palm Warbler

Cape May Warbler
Red-legged Thrush
Orchid
Waterlilly

Every expedition has to have an expedition vehicle. Ours was a 48' Willys Jeep. The chassis is original,
no doors, seat belts, or air bag. It had a Toyota engine and transmission and ran on diesel.
The fuel gauge did not work—no worries it had a dip stick.



This psychedelic 51' Chevy was in the process of being restored. Each of the colors was from a previous paint job.
Under the hood,  a Russian Volgas engine.


Cuba is famous for its American cars of the 1950s, and even earlier years.  There is no convenient field guide to the cars of Cuba,
but there are field marks.


To see them, stop on any street, or visit any of the tourist spots.





You can rent these vintage cars for about $33 an hour, or you can ride the pedicycle for a bit less.


 A 59' Caddy—my favorite




Michael De Rosa, Ph. D.
Professor of Chemistry
Penn State Brandywine
25 Yearsley Mill road
Media, PA 19063
610-892-1416 (office)
610-892-1405 (FAX)