Sunday, February 22, 2009

The treetop perchers and the lords of the tundra

Last weekend, after changing family plans and leaving work early on Friday, I traveled to Sault Ste. Marie in Chippewa County of Michigan's upper peninsula with Tex Wells to see our winter birds.  This year has been good for owls with many Snowy Owls, two Northern Hawk Owls and one vs. two Great Gray Owls being reported.  Additionally, there are good numbers of all the little winter birds too; redpolls, both winter grosbeaks and, if lucky, Bohemian Waxwings.

Our first treetop percher was a light-morph Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus).  We saw several on Saturday, and this bird on Sunday.  This is a cropped photo of a very distant bird.  I use it here because it shows the bird as they are often found, perched at the tops of trees making it distinguishable, even from a distance, from other mid-tree perching buteos, like Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis.)  Roughies are beautiful birds.

When we did not find the Great Gray Owl on our first pass along Lower Hay Lake Road we moved on to our next staked out birds at Nine Mile and Nicolett, reliable here because the homeowner feeds them.

Silhouetted profile of Sharp-tailed Grouse.

This front view shows a very round and plump bird.

We saw Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) in a few spots, including strutting their stuff on a large, snow-covered field that may have been their lek.

The traditional stop at Dunbar Forest had all of the expected birds. Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) was the only new species we saw here.  We happened to arrive at the same time the homeowners were filling their feeders - a time consuming affair at this house.  I am always struck by how beautiful Dunbar Forest is in winter, the only season I've ever been here.  So much about it makes me also want to return in early June.

From Dunbar Forest we drove to M-48 and McCabe roads for our third treetop percher.

Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)

Word has it that this bird was being hand-fed mice by birders, (dare I say bird photographers - in my mind, some - not all - of whom are becoming more and more like the birding world's Bernie Madoff's and Allen Stanford's.)  In any event, on Saturday morning the owl did not storm down to me upon hearing the car door close as was the experience of our friends who had seen the bird the weekend before.  We returned to see the owl on Sunday morning.  That's when the above photo was taken.  Terrible light, of course, but even in this tiny, cropped image you can see the bird's eyes.

From here we drove to Hantz Road followed by Centerline Road to find the lords of the tundra. I don't think we found any Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) on Hantz where at least a couple had been reported, but we did find three on or near Centerline.

Our first.  Thank goodness for fence posts.

I found the next two photos amusing.  

Almost exactly in the center of this photo you can see a round, little white head peaking over this collapsed barn roof.

Looking right at me - my cropped image of the photo above reveals that one cannot sneak up on these guys.  All of the Snowys we saw were juveniles.

From Centerline we drove over to Hulbert Bog so we could get not seeing the Gray Jays (Perisoreus canadensis) out of the way and allow for an early departure home on Sunday morning.  We were successful with both - we did not see the Gray Jays and we did achieve an early departure on Sunday.  Despite all of the baiting that prior birders had left, the Gray Jays did not come in to enjoy the peanuts I had purchased for them.  We did see two birds, with the size, shape and flight style of Gray Jays fly low from one side of the road to the other, but they continued on through the woods.  Where formerly Gray Jays have been so reliable, I am wondering if something has occurred to the population of birds at Hulbert Bog.  For the past three years at least, I, and many others, have missed them on this road.

     I found this photo, from February 2005, of a Gray Jay at Hulbert Bog.

The Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) above, and the Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) did come in the enjoy sunflower seeds left by others and the peanuts I broke up and put down for them. Tex and I both agreed that we would gladly enjoy seeing a Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica), but they're not around either.

On the road into Hulbert Bog, we saw a flock of Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) and on Sunday morning we also enjoyed a relatively close flock of Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator.)

Question:  Why are Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks not in with our other grosbeaks? Is it that these two species are exclusively northern birds and the other five (?) species are tropical or have tropical migrations?  I also spent time learning the calls of our two winter grosbeaks which I have a chance to see so infrequently.  The Pine Grosbeak, in particular, has quite a distinctive and pretty call.

Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea) were routinely seen both days. We saw only one candidate for Hoary Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni) at the Nicolett house feeders, but could not get enough on this bird to convince Tex.

The rest of our stay was occupied by our search for the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa.)  We had plenty of company doing the same thing.  On Saturday afternoon, we arrived back at Lower Hay Lake Road in time to see a flock of Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) eating from a crab apple tree that, remarkably, still had fruit and then flying down to a puddle in the road to drink.  We waited as long as we had the patience for on Saturday evening and left Lower Hay Lake Road at dusk.  Later we learned that the Great Gray had been seen at deep dusk in a woods accessed from Seven Mile Road.  On Sunday morning we returned to both of these locations, and again, did not see the bird.

When we finally gave up the search for the Great Gray and were leaving the Soo, we saw our fourth, and last, treetop percher, a Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) high in a farm yard tree. It's amazing how these birds can be so easily missed.

The weather for our Soo birding weekend was extraordinary.  Dry roads, no wind, a bit of sun here and there, especially on Saturday afternoon and evening.  For our drive home on Sunday, the sun continued and the roads remained dry and safe.  The weatherman, Tex Wells, was very pleased.      

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Town Point: Sad end of an era

On Monday morning I opened an email from my friend Patti in Baltimore that was titled simply "sad news." Without even opening Patti's email I knew intuitively what the sad news was. The lease on our summer rental in Dorchester County on the Eastern shore of Maryland had ended. For years, more for Patti and her family than for me, we rented a rustic cabin on the banks of the brackish and tidal Fishing Creek River that fed into the Chesapeake Bay. Finished, over - just like that.

Evening settles into dusk over Fishing Creek.

Why? It's a long story which I am only partially knowledgeable. For the past several years, and particularly the last couple of years, the landlady had grown increasingly odd and difficult to deal with. I'd met her a few times and she was always cordial to me, but I never had to discuss the business end of our lease with her, as did our friend Brian. Apparently, this year, she was so over-the-top in her demands and assertions, that her increasing oddness and unreasonableness could no longer be ignored. Like that, our time at Town Point on Fishing Creek was over.

Difficult to see, but this view is of a small bay on the south side of the lawn. On the other side, you can barely see it, is the landlady's grand house. This bay is full of wildlife, including a very successful Osprey nest where the birds return year after year to hatch, fledge and teach their young how to fish over the river. A Great Blue Heron - my friend, Patti, called it our heron - was a daily visitor.

The cabin had once been a waterman's house. The original house is the center part, but over the years it had been added to on each side. The river is flowing just where this sentence appears. For all I can recall, I may have even been standing in the river when I took this photo.

The table is set for our evening meal.

We always ate on the screened porch. Sometimes our evening meals were quite grand. I happen to clearly recall, since this was only last July, that for the evening meal above we served Maryland crab cakes and Maryland Silver Queen corn-on-the-cob. For those who are reading this and who may not be acquainted with the local food of the Eastern shore of Maryland - these two foods are without comparison anywhere. Most late Saturday mornings required a trip to Kool Ice, the local fish market in town, where we purchased fish of all sorts - lump crab, croaker, snapper, etc. - for our evening meal. In the past couple of years, we had begun to frequent Emily's, a beautiful roadside produce stand, for corn, tomatoes, melons and pies fresh-baked by Emily's mother.  When Patti's father, Jack, led the evening meal grace he always ended with "many a fine meal has been enjoyed at this table."

After breakfast or dinner the table was cleared, the bridge cards often came out, teams were decided, and many hours of this fine game were enjoyed while listening to the sounds of the river - crab boats at work or Laughing Gulls flying out from or back to their evening roost nearer the bay.

The driveway to our cabin was a mile long through 40 acres of pine forest.

At night the Chuck-will's Widows called continuously ... chuck-wills widow, chuck-wills widow, chuck-wills widow ... a vigorous and beautiful call that many, birders and non-birders alike, enjoyed. Morning walks along the driveway often revealed many stunning sights. A doe with fawn looking my way at the sound of my footprints on the path, occasionally the local and rare Delmarva Squirrel could be seen scurrying across the driveway, Wild Turkey scuttling away, Bob-white calling at the woods' edge, a Barred Owl pair calling to each other in the early, gray morning mist ... I never did keep an official "yard list" of birds I found here, but it would have been long. In the meadow, where our driveway turned from south to west, was where I learned the full song of a Grasshopper Sparrow - not just the buzzy, insect like call - but the complex, high-pitched series of notes that this wonderful little bird is able to throw forth. My bed was a couch on the screened porch. In spring, I was awakened in the morning by loons calling on the river. Brown-headed Nuthatches liked to stop by a dead tree in the yard and their squeaky little calls announced their presence. One night in particular was very special; Friday, June 14th, 2002 from 2:00 am through 5:00 am I heard a Black Rail calling incessantly - keekeedur, keekeedur, keekeedur - from a marshy area on the south side of the cabin. This sound was like crack to me; every time I returned I wanted to hear the Black Rail call again and again. The following night, Saturday, it rained heavily and I never heard the Black Rail again. Nevertheless, at night I laid awake as long as I could to listen for its call.  

I have no bird photos from Town Point, but I did find this unidentified dragonfly that I photographed on the front yard stones.  Some little bit of plastic garbage seems to have captured its attention.
Turtle stop, turtle stop!

This guy above was found trying to make its way across the driveway on my visit to Town Point last July. I admit to a great fondness for turtles. As a kid, this was the only pet I was allowed to have, and even then, only in summer. I treated my turtles well feeding them raw hamburger in their big basin. But, at the end of the summer, I always had to return them to the lake. Since my childhood, I have always been able to spot a turtle crossing the road at almost any distance. I stop the car, get out, pick up the turtle and place it off the road in the direction it was moving. Look how beautiful this Box Turtle is!  Town Point was also where I saw my first ever Spotted Turtles in the drainage ditches along the driveway. Now, that's a cute turtle.  We took photos but, of course, I can't find them now.  The drainage ditches were also known to be a fine spot for some pretty large snappers.

The marsh at Hog Island

My visits to Town Point always included birding in Blackwater NWR, Elliot Island, Hooper's Island, Taylors Island or Hog Island, above, where last summer Steve Sanford, Gail Franz and I went to look for Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows. We didn't find any on that day, but the experience of going to Hog Island (or any of the islands) is of stepping back in time.  At Hog Island, we were surrounded by nothing but the huge marsh and its lonely beauty.

Blackwater NWR is one of my favorite places. In 2002, I trained for the Labor Day weekend five day Dalmac bike ride from Lansing to Mackinac in Michigan by riding a 45 mile route through and all around Blackwater NWR. This was the finest cycling I have ever enjoyed - even with the very clear memory of once riding along Egypt Road when a dog came flying across its front yard and very nearly caught my left ankle. I didn't know, until then, that my legs had so much spin in them. After that day, I rode down Maple Dam Road.

KydeKY on her dog bed on the porch last July

All of our dogs enjoyed Town Point as much as we did. None of us will be able to think of time spent on the farm without also thinking about our dogs. Tuxedo, Tipper, Ky, Daphne, and the incomparable Skylar. Town Point is a dogs' haven and our dogs enjoyed it as much as we did.

My friends, Colleen McLean and Gail Franz

For, if anything, Town Point was all about relaxing. This was the essence of the place. We loved it all the more for the stolen leisure we were able to enjoy.

There's no way that our time at Town Point and all of the memories we have - I didn't mention the obligatory visits to Packing House Antiques, Felman's Antiques in Salisbury or Goose on the Roof Antiques along eastbound Route 50, stopping at Foxwell's in Easton on the way home; the birthday and Father's Day celebrations, the kayacks, swimming with sea nettles and nurse's sharks and many, many others - can ever be fully recalled in this brief and simple recollection. But, I hope you get the idea of what a great place and great time we all had at our Town Point. Daily life reminds us all of how nothing is forever. The loss of Town Point brings this into full focus. Life goes on and new adventures, places and joys will come with it.

Dusk settles into night over Fishing Creek

Postscript: So many of my visits to Town Point were photo-less. I guess I just took for granted that it would always be there. Fortunately, I have the above photos from my July, 2008 week long visit to tell this story. Unfortunately, these photos do not include the Chappells, Brian Torrance, Allen and others who have enjoyed Town Point for many more years than I have. I know this loss is much harder for them.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Can one ever see too many Green Jays?

Both Green Jay photos taken at Salineno
Over five days birding in Texas, I found out that the answer to this question is no. These [unfortunately overexposed muting the full effect of their bright colors] Green Jay (Cyanocoras yncas) photos were taken at the Salineno feeding station. On Wednesday, January 28th, 2009, I left my house at 4:00 am to catch a 6:00 am flight to Corpus Christi, Texas.
When I left Detroit my world looked like this.
American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncho)
When I arrived in Texas, it looked like this. I was met at the airport by our trip leader, Karl Overman, and the other fortunate trip participant, Walter Everett. Birding began immediately. My first photo was of this charming Inca Dove (Columbina inca.)
Inca Dove
We saw and heard these little guys in most places on the trip. Their plaintive "no hope" call is very appealing. While not a particularly "special" bird, I include it here because this is one of my better trip photos.
Long-billed Curlew
My first life bird was this spectacular Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanua.)
Mountain Plover
After leaving the water, we drove inland to huge plowed ranch fields, and after diligent searching finally found nine Mountain Plovers (Charadrius montanus.) Around these same fields we also found White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) and White-tailed Hawk (Buteo albicaudatus.) All three were life birds for me.
Baby Jack Rabbit
I also found this jack rabbit bunny perfectly camouflaged in the plowed rows. He had to have perfect camouflage to remain hidden from the numerous hawks hunting the fields.
Great Kiskadee
The Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) was one of my new ABA birds. With their lemon breasts and bellies, rufous backs and big black and white striped heads, these gregarious and vociferous birds were very common and we saw them first at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco.
Rose-throated Becard
The best bird seen in Estero Llano Grande State Park was this Rose-throated Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae.) I know this is not a good photograph, but I am so pleased to have any photograph at all of this little bird flitting in the leafy canopy. In the photo above, the bird can be identified by structure, bill size and shape and the small amount of rufous that is visible in the uppertail coverts. The bird was a young male and the rose throat patch was well seen.
After seeing my blog, my friend, Steve Sanford from Baltimore County, worked with my photo so that the bird was brighter and so his eye and rose throat could also be seen.
Common Pauraque
Another ABA bird for me was the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) photographed during its daytime sleep. Other good birds at Estero Llano were Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana), Least Grebes (Tachybaptus dominicus) and Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum.) If you're looking for Lincoln Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii) in winter, this is a good place to find them.
Another very successful birding spot in Weslaco was Frontera Audubon Nature Sanctuary. Here we looked three times, unsuccessfully, for a very sedentary female Crimson-collared Grosbeak (Rhodothraupis celaeno) there. But, we were rewarded with another terrific bird. The photograph below is terrible - obviously - but I include it here because the fine chocolate-brown color of this bird is really beautiful.
Blue Bunting
My photograph of this female Blue Bunting (Cyanocompsa parellina) suggests that we had only fleeting glimpses. But we saw this bird well as we chased it around the orchard area of Frontera. It has a distinctive and clear bell-like chip note. The rich chocolate color of the bird is uncommon for North American birds, but Karl pointed out that this is a color found in many Central and South American birds.
Clay-colored Thrush
There were at least two and probably more Clay-colored Thrushes (Turdus grayi, formerly Clay-colored Robin) at Frontera. We saw many other birds here including Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis), Plain Chacalacas (Ortalis vetula), Gray Hawk (Asturina nitida) and Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis.) We also found other birds here that are very good for this part of Texas; Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) and Pine Sisken (Carduelis pinus.) There were also a number of butterflies at Frontera. I was able to get good photos of some. Below are three of my best.
Band-celled Sister (Adelpha fessonia)
Dusky-blue Hairstreak (Calycopis isobeon)
Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithania)
While at Frontera we met Mary Gustafson, coordinator of the Texas RBA. She told us of a bird that we thought we had arrived too late to see secondary to it no longer being reported at Estero Llano Grande. She printed the directions from the RBA report for us and we set off. An hour later we arrived at our destination. After driving 3.2 miles down a bumpy, dirt two-track, CR30, and another 0.4 miles down an even bumpier two-track we arrived at a remote and wooded pond surrounded by large, plowed ranch fields.
In amongst the American Coots (Fulica americana) is our coup bird in Willacy County, Texas.
This Masked Duck (Nomonyx dominicus) was cropped from the above photo.  (Accepted TBRC 2009-13. Texas photo file number:  TPRF 2705.)
There to see it with me were, from left, Karl Overman, our trip leader, Walter Everett and Rich Trissel, our new birding friend who we met at Frontera (and who did see the Crimson-collared Grosbeak.) While putzing around and enjoying the Masked Duck, Rich also identified a Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) soaring over the plowed fields; another bird we did not expect to see. At Salineno, Rich also saw a Zone-tailed Hawk, which did not make an appearance for us during our time there.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
At Salineno we added Audubon's Oriole (to my dismay, all of my photos were too severely out of focus to show here) to our trip list and to my life list. We saw many Golden-fronted Woodpeckers (Melanerpes uropygialis) throughout the trip, but this photo was taken at Salineno. Aside, from this beautiful male's striking head plumage, it's not much different from the more widespread Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus.) We found a beautiful and active Ringed Kingfisher (Ceryle torquata) along the river. In the evening, three Red-billed Pigeons (Columba flavirostris) flew over the river from east to west. As it grew rapidly dusk, other waterfowl flocks flew over, but the Muscovy Ducks (Cairina moshcata) did not make an appearance for us. While we stood on the river bank waiting for the Muscovys to fly over and getting bit by mosquitos, we heard a distant Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) hooting.

There were so many great places, great birds and other wildlife seen in the just over five day south Texas trip. We saw all but three of our target birds - Piping Plovers at South Padre Island flew off before we were able to get the scope on them, the Crimson-collared Grosbeak already mentioned and the White-collared Seedeater which we searched for on our final day, Monday, February 2nd.
Here's Walter chatting with a border patrol agent. In San Ygnacio much of the White-colored Seedeater habitat was flooded (no doubt at least one of the reasons why we did not find them here.) The flooded area, however, appeared to make it easier for a boat to sneak through with an illegal immigrant or two. While we were walking the trail, a boat amongst the flooded trees attracted the attention of the border agents. However, they must be accustomed to seeing birders here because the only attention we received from them were polite nods and a greeting of "good morning."

In all we saw 175 species of birds. I saw 22 life birds and five new ABA birds. Karl has been here many times and it was amazing how he could drive around this large area of Texas while only occasionally consulting a map. Thanks, Karl, for such a great trip. I'm already looking forward to the next.

Postscript: As you may know from reading my prior posts, neither my camera nor I are particularly well-suited to taking great photos. When I got home I downloaded 352 photos and immediately went through each and deleted 198 of them. As always, my trip review is written around presentable photos. As mentioned above, none of my Audubon Oriole photos were in focus. If even one had turned out, it would be included here. In future blog posts I will stop apologizing for my photos.