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Friday, June 30, 2017

A quick road trip to Colorado - Late June 2017

Rocky Mountain National Park - Elevation 11000ft
          Sharon and I were sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday when the phone rang and it was our son Bryan who lives in Longmont, CO. He called to tell us he was available for us to come out next weekend to chase a Baird's Sparrow that was nesting in Colorado. It was around 3pm when the call came in, so I quickly got the maps out and planned a roundabout route to get there. By that evening we were packed up and ready to go the next morning. We would drive out the northern route around Chicago, up into Wisconsin and through Minnesota to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota also visiting Custer State Park and Mt Rushmore. From there down to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska, then to Colorado. On the way home we would travel through Kansas and Missouri back into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio and finally home. We put on 3200 miles on this route,  13 states in eleven days.
          The first day's drive was a long one but we made it past Chicago. We wanted to get around the city so we wouldn't have to deal with the morning rush hour on Monday. Along the route we passed this old car and matching camper from Maryland and we kept seeing him repeatedly the next two days in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
           At one rest stop in Pennsylvania we came across this lady who was transporting her pony to Michigan in the back seat of her pickup truck.

          The second day we started our travels into Wisconsin and visited some small parks to look for birds. We were still getting the common eastern birds at this point but in one field Sharon found a couple of Sandhill Cranes. Good Spotting!
Two Sandhill Cranes
           Driving through a local town we noticed this sign.

           Our next stop was at Necedah NWR in west central Wisconsin. This is a very large refuge with lots of lakes and marshes. We were here in search of Whooping Cranes.

           This refuge is a stronghold for the Karner Blue Butterfly. Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is home to the world’s largest population of this butterfly thanks in part due to its abundance of the wild lupine plants on which the butterfly is entirely dependent. This beautiful endangered species is only about the size of a quarter. Its pale blue markings of the male butterfly make it stand out among the purple lupine flowers that bloom in April. We couldn't find any because the Lupines were finished blooming already but here is a model of one in the visitor center.
Karner Blue Butterfly
Karner Blue Butterfly - Internet Photo

          We asked inside the center where the best spot was to view any cranes and they told us to go out back and look in the lake. Well we did that with no luck but we did find this sculpture of the whooper.
Whooping Crane Statue
           So we went back in and asked for another good area. So they told us to drive about a mile to another lake. No luck again however we did find a lot of Trumpeter Swans, some with Cygnets.
Distant Trumpeter Swans a young
           Also on the trail to the lake we found Red-headed Woodpeckers, which turned out to be quite plentiful.
One of about six Red-headed Woodpeckers just in this area.
           A White-tailed Deer with fawn was also present.
           After searching for the crane in the recommended areas we went off on our own since the visitor center was now closed. We drove about 6 miles north of the usual lakes to a road called Lupine Trail. It was quite far from the other lakes so I didn't expect to see any cranes but Sharon wanted to check it out in case any Lupines were still in bloom. We were driving along the trail not seeing any Lupines so I turned to Sharon, who had been spotting some good birds on this trip so far, I said "OK little Miss Spotty, find me a Whooping Crane." So she turned around and looked backwards past some shrubs and said "How about that bird right there?" Darn if it wasn't a lone Whooping Crane.
Whooping Crane - The only one we saw of the eighty or so on the refuge.
          So we ended our stay in Wisconsin on a very positive high note. Next blog will start in Minnesota. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Week at Hog Island

Last week (June 11-16, 2017), I was able to attend the “Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens” program at Hog Island.  For myself and the twenty others in the program, this was an amazing opportunity to explore the birds and different habitats of Maine.  Our teen leaders for the week were Josh Potter, Corey Husic, and Heather Richard.  Our session was also lucky to share the island with a talented group of people in the “Arts and Birding” program.

On Sunday, we all arrived in the afternoon and then had a chance to meet everyone who was going to be on the island for the week.  Everyone ate dinner together before we played games to get to know each other.  When it finally was dark, we went on an owl prowl.  We called the owls by imitating them but not by playing recordings.  The only owl we did hear was a Northern Saw-whet Owl, a lifer for many in the program.

The next day, we had an optional six o'clock bird walk; however, it was well-attended.  Then we ate breakfast before going on a "shakedown cruise" during the morning, exploring the area around Hog Island.  We returned for lunch, followed by a longer hike around all of Hog Island.  During this hike, we separated and slowly walked through the middle of the island to listen to all the sounds we heard.  After dinner, we had a presentation by Steve Kress about bringing puffins and other birds back to Eastern Egg Rock.  

On Tuesday, after breakfast and another six o'clock walk, we got on the boat for the short ride across to the mainland.  Once there, we piled into the two vans to drive to different spots to bird.  Our first stop was McCurdy Pond Road.  Here, we walked about a mile down the road, listening (and looking) for warblers.  We briefly saw a Northern Waterthrush and got good looks at a male Scarlet Tanager.  Our highlight, while not either of those birds, was one briefly seen and heard: a Ruffed Grouse.  While we were looking at the Scarlet Tanager, the grouse took off from the base of a hemlock right next to the road.  We could hear its wing beats as it took off; it had been just five feet from us off the road.  Our next stop was Great Salt Bay Farm Wildlife Preserve.  Here we saw nesting Bobolinks, getting great looks and pictures.  

We also had a low adult Bald Eagle, also allowing for great photos.  After eating lunch, we continued on to Hidden Valley Nature Center.  While not extremely birdy, this place gave us a chance to investigate the kettle-hole bog and its plants.  
Pitcher Plants and Sundews

We were also able to see the cool nest of an Ovenbird close to one of the trails.  We then drove back to the dock, with one stop to hear a singing Prairie Warbler.  After dinner, we had a presentation on bird song by Angelika Nelson.

Our third day was the most exciting: getting to land on Eastern Egg Rock.  Eastern Egg Rock hosts a breeding colony with Arctic, Roseate and Common Terns, Black Guillemots, and Atlantic Puffins.  
Black Guillemot on Eastern Egg Rock

After the boat ride of about an hour and climbing into the dory to land, we were dive-bombed by terns as we made our way to the lone building, called the "Hilton," on the center of Eastern Egg Rock.  Once introduced to the five interns currently on the island, we split into two groups.  My group had an opportunity to sit in blinds (more like three-foot-square boxes) while the other painted and worked on building a new, larger blind.  We sat in our blinds for about two hours.  My blind looked out at terns, mostly common with a few Arctic, some occasional guillemots and about six puffins.  The puffins would disappear into burrows and loaf on a big rock.  

Banded Atlantic Puffin photographed from a blind

While the blind was not very large, the bucket with a cushion was comfortable enough, and due to the roof you were safe from the terns.  The terns did land on the roof of the blind sometimes, but they couldn't peck you.  After sitting in the blind, photographing and watching the birds, I was pecked and attacked by the terns almost immediately upon emerging.  After eating lunch together, we split back into our groups.  My group helped widen some of the trails that were growing in and then sat on the roof of the “Hilton.”  On the roof, there was one pair of terns that sat on the corner, watching you and attacking if you moved too much.  

Common Tern on the "Hilton"

Common Tern attacking us as we sat on the roof

From the roof, we were able to scope nests of Common, Roseate and, although a little farther away, Arctic Terns.  Then, it was time to climb back into the dory and head back to Hog Island.  That evening, we had presentations on photography by Derrick Jackson and Drew Fulton.  

Thursday morning was an early one: we started off with a sound-recording workshop at 4:15 AM.  Only about nine people managed to get up, but it was worth it.  We went in groups of three around the island, recording the different birds.  Then, being done by 6 AM, we all set off on the normal bird walk as well.  For our last full day, we headed to Burnt Island to do some banding.  With bander Anthony Hill, we set up three nets and caught one each of nine species: Swainson's Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common Yellowthroat, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and Golden-crowned Kinglet.  It was great to see these birds, especially the male Black-throated Green up close; however, the real highlight of the day was 8 Sitka Spruce or Type 10 Red Crossbills.  We identified them as Type 10 based on the spectrogram of the recording someone took.  They flew over, and then perched in the tops of spruce trees for some quick photos and looks.  On the way back to Hog Island, we went by two islands with nesting Double-crested Cormorants, not very common nesters in Muscongus Bay.

Double-crested Cormorants nesting on a rocky island
Overall, this was an amazing week, complete with birds like puffins that you don't see every day.  If you would like to see more photos and hear more stories, come to my presentation to the Birding Club of Delaware County in October.  Hog Island offers programs for families, teachers, adults and teens.  I thank the National Audubon Society, for giving me an Ambassador Award, and the Valley Forge Audubon chapter for their sponsorship, both supporting my week at camp.

Kristen Johnson

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Few June Days in Cape May

Mrs. BadBirder (aka Kellie) and I recently spent a pleasant few days in Cape May. The birding was pretty good for June. Here’s how it went:

Friday morning (6/16) we started out at the Beanery (Rea’s Farm). We read that a Prothonotary Warbler had been heard at that location, and we hoped to find it. Last summer we caught a fleeting glimpse of the Prothonotary in the swampy area by the old railroad tracks, so we thought we’d try there. As we approached the area, sure enough we heard the bird. We weed-whacked our way back into the swamp, and we caught a quick sight of the bird as it flit from one tree, to a second, to…gone! No pics.

We continued to wander around until we came to the wooded cut-through from the field adjoining the winery to the first field by the parking area. Again, we heard the Prothonotary, but this time we were rewarded with some nice views and managed to get some pics. Not a lifer, but always great!

Prothonotary Warbler

We also flushed some young turkeys, which was fun…

One of the little ones.

Mom in flight

…and we got a view of a Black Vulture whose name must be “Napoleon” (or something like that). We found 33 species in all.

Napoleon the Black Vulture

We spent the rest of the day reclining on the beach (even when a thick fog rolled in).

Saturday morning we were back at it, this time at Cape May Point State Park. We had heard there was a Northern Bobwhite that had been hanging around, and we hoped to see it. We once caught a glimpse of one at Bombay Hook, but we mainly resigned ourselves to only hearing them. Getting a good view of a bird that loves the underbrush seemed unlikely. We pulled into the lighthouse parking lot, got out of the car…and it sounded like the bobwhite was broadcasting over a loudspeaker! Turns out the bird was perched in a cedar at eye-level right next to the hawkwatch platform, singing his head off. We took a lot of photos, most any one of which would have been a keeper.

Northern Bobwhite

The bird finally hopped off the tree, walked across the sidewalk, out into the parking lot, then took off towards the beach. It was so fun I almost could have quit for the day right then — but we were glad we didn’t.

We spent about three more hours on the yellow trail, seeing (among the total of 40 species) some Tom turkeys, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and a Orchard Oriole building her nest (we also saw an adult male and one, maybe two, young males singing away).

[NOTE: If you haven’t see the eBird challenge for June, it’s all about using Breeding Codes in reports.]

Orchard Oriole with nesting material

Construction work

Well, another good day birding. So we spent the afternoon doing a little shopping, etc., then settled into our place to enjoy Happy Hour. And just as we started working on a second glass of Prosecco, I opened up Facebook…only to find that a rare Forked-tailed Flycatcher was being seen ALL DAY at Cape May Point State Park! While we were there! WTF? (A couple of you might have gotten a profanity-laden email/text of frustration from me about this…I have a great skill at missing the “big ones,” and here we go again).

Well, not this time! We hopped into the car (trust me…I was fully sobered with determination) and raced back to the Point (just a short drive from our place). I expected to see absolutely nothing (as usual), but as we pulled into the parking lot I noticed a small group of birders (a couple of well-known ones among them) training their scopes on the scrub between the parking lot and the beach. We raced up to join them and got magnificent views of the Forked-tailed Flycatcher, both perched and flying.

Forked-tailed Flycatcher

The show lasted for at least a half-an-hour, until it flew off towards the beach in the direction of the retreat house.

I followed the serious birders over towards the beach and glommed on to their views of shearwaters. I got a good view of the Great Shearwater (my second life bird in an hour), but couldn’t honestly figure out the Cory’s they were watching (so I missed out on that). As I gave up squinting through a scope at distant sea birds, the flycatcher made one more pass back across the parking lot.

To finish off the night, our new friend the Bobwhite was sitting up on the hawkwatch, singing in the sunset.

"... White!"
Sunday, we birded the Meadows. We spent some time with the Least Terns, who were feeding, and also managed to get a couple of Sandwich Terns among the Forster’s Terns and Laughing Gulls on the far side of the eastern pond. We enjoyed the half-dozen or so American Oystercatchers as well. We also caught sight of an Osprey chick in the nest.

Least Terns
American Oystercatchers
American Oystercatcher
Sandwich Tern (long black bill with yellow tip, larger size, a bit crested is on left) with Forster's Tern

In all, 64 species without working too hard at it. I’m sure there was more to be had, but what we had was great.

We had to leave Monday morning for work, which always makes us a little crabby.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Help with Downy and Hairy Woodpecker Identification.

Many times when I’m in the field with a group of birders and we encounter a black and white type woodpecker, I hear the question “is that a Downy or a Hairy?”  Mostly this question is asked from beginners or less experienced birders, but, I have been with seasoned birders and birding alone when I’ve heard that same question.

These two species are not in the same category of difficulty as molting gulls and shorebirds, so we should be able to conquer the identification in short order. Of course, if you want to get good at woodpecker identification as well as bird identification in general, you must spend considerable hours at home studying your reference material and then a considerable amount of time in the field putting what you've learned into practice.

All the field guides tell you the best ways to separate Downy and Hairy Woodpecker is by the difference in size, bill shape and size, the presence or lack of dark spots or barring on the outer tail feathers and vocalizations.  

Ok, so let’s break down these suggestions and see if they help with the identification.

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right).
Size: This field mark is difficult to use without experience. Hairy is much larger than Downy but this is hard to appreciate unless you happen to come across these two species simultaneously on the same tree. Very unlikely. 

Here are two photos I was lucky to get in my yard of both species together. In each photo the size difference is quite evident.

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right). 

Other photos showing the obvious size difference.

Here you can see the smaller size of a Downy Woodpecker which can be held in my cupped hand. 

Hairy Woodpecker, on the other hand, is larger than my hand. 

Downy Woodpecker (top) & Hairy Woodpecker (bottom). 
Downy Woodpecker (top) & Hairy Woodpecker (bottom). 

Bill size: Once again experience is helpful. Determining bill size on a solitary bird can be difficult but not impossible and a good sustained look is helpful. Downy will show a short, pointed bill and with a good look from different angles, it can be described as a small chisel. Hairy, on the other hand has a whopping chisel of a bill. 

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right) bill comparisons. Hairy Woodpecker bill is noticeably thick at the base compared to the Downy's narrow base. Bill length is very noticeable in these side-by-side images. Obtaining a good view of this field mark will greatly assist in making the identification. 

Dark spotting/barring on the outer tail feathers: Once again, a good close look is really needed to appreciate this field mark. As far I can tell, Hairy Woodpecker has complete white outer tail feathers. Downy has dark spots or bars on the outer tail feathers but in my experience they vary from very apparent to faint to very faint. 

These images show the variability of the dark barring on the outer tail feathers of Downy Woodpecker. Hairy Woodpecker outer tail feathers are white without barring.

Vocalizations: The differences in calls are absolute identifiers and will assist in making the proper identification. I also recently learned that their is a difference in “drumming” between the two species with Hairy having a faster drumming rhythm. Might be worth checking out.

Whinny call - Hairy has a loud robust whinny, while Downy is softer and weaker in nature.

Downy Woodpecker - whinny Pennsylvania (Joe Verica)

Hairy Woodpecker - whinny New Jersey (Jeff Ellerbusch)

Call note - Downy sharp but soft, reminds me of a Song Sparrow call note. Hairy sharp, loud and emphatic.

Downy Woodpecker call note New York (Brad Walker)

Hairy Woodpecker - call note Pennsylvania (Joe Verica)

Drumming - Downy is steady, evenly paced but not rapid. Hairy is steady and rapid (supposedly is the fastest drumming of all North American woodpeckers)

Downy Woodpecker -drumming Vermont (David Eberly)

Hairy Woodpecker - drumming Vermont (Roy Pilcher)

Status and Distribution and Geographical Variation: Status and Distribution cannot really be used to assist with separating the two species. Both species occupy the same range and habitats and both are fairly common within their range. Downy may appear less shy and thus more numerous and I would guess that on an average field trip in appropriate habitat the ratio of Downy to Hairy might be 2:1 or 3:1.  Birds from the Rocky Mountains are generally darker with less wing spotting.

Geographical Variation - The photo on the left I took on Mt. Charleston, NV and shows the Rocky Mountain race of Hairy Woodpecker which has a lot less wing spotting and a very dark back which is quite striking when first seen. The Hairy Woodpecker on the right is from West Chester, PA.

I hope this blog simplifies the ID problem a little.