Thursday, April 30, 2009

Texas hill country: three for three plus ...

I'm now in San Antonio for the Oncology Nursing Society Congress. This is a different blog entry entirely, but sticking with birds for the moment, I had a big day yesterday with three target birds planned for my Texas hill country visit.

My first stop was Kerr Wildlife Management Area near Hunt, Texas, about 100 miles northwest of San Antonio.  On road FM 1640 and almost to Kerr WMA, I finally found my Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus).  I had been told that this would be an easy and plentiful bird.
It was certainly easy; they're hard to miss perched on utility wires.  But, they were not plentiful. I saw only two during my long drive and much of it through perfect Scissor-tailed habitat.  I later met birders from Virginia who had driven to the hill country from the south.  They guesstimated having seen 50 to 75 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along their drive.  Though the weather was not cooperative, the bird certainly was and I was happy with this life bird sighting.
I arrived at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area around 8:30 am.  The guys who work here had not begun their day yet and I spoke with a very nice and knowledgeable guy who told me exactly where to look for the Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapillus).  He was not a birder and he warned that the wet and overcast weather might harm my chances of seeing the bird.  It was warm and a light rain fell  continuously.  This kind of weather mirrored what I find to be very accommodating spring migration birding weather in Michigan so, despite his caution, I was not discouraged.   The Black-capped Vireo area happened to be very birdy.  I listened for a vireo song and the Black-capped was the second bird I put my bins on after Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus).  Other vireos here were the very common White-eyed (Vireo griseus) and Blue-headed (Vireo solitarius).  With the exception of its big red eye, the female Black-capped Vireo is superficially like the adult Blue-headed. The male Black-capped really stands out with its striking black head and, even in flight, is easy to identify.  Its voice has the tone and texture similar to White-eyed Vireo, but the song is more complex and disorganized.  
My pitiful Black-capped Vireo photo.  He was facing me and singing but before I could snap the shutter he turned and I got his shadowy back end instead.  This bird is completely cute and a pleasure to see.
Copied from XBAT, Extensible Bioacustic Tool, here's the Black-capped Vireo shown beautifully.

While I was seeing the Black-capped Vireo the area was enjoying a fallout of migrant birds, many on their way up north, but I had only this one day to bird and I needed to stay focused. One of the things about Texas is how distant places are; places look close on the map, but the scale of Texas is so huge.  I did a lot of driving this day.
Golden-cheeked Warblers (Dendroica chrysoparia) are also found in the Kerr WMA and this is their best spot.  Almost immediately I heard one bird sing once from well back in the trees. After approximately one half hour, I decided to give up here and head off to my next Golden-cheeked Warbler spot. 
At the intersection of 39 and 187 and under low, gray skies, this sign points the way to the Golden-Cheeked Warblers.
After so much driving, I was grateful that my search for the Golden-cheeked Warbler required walking - about a mile - to an area called "the ponds."  Here, too, it was easy to get distracted, but I tried to stay focused.  I arrived at "the ponds" around 2:00 pm and it was hot; not a great time of day to find a special bird.  The birding couple from Virginia, the Thornhills, arrived shortly after I did and we birded together for the Golden-cheeked.  Finally, I heard one bird sing - but it was across the river and seemed to be quite deep in the trees.  We continued to walk along the river and about a half-hour later I heard another bird sing - also across the river.  However, the river was not as wide here and this bird sounded close.  Mr. Thornhill was the first to see the singing male bird and he got his wife and me on the bird as well.  Our looks were not long, but they were complete.  We finally left very satisfied.
Golden-cheeked Warbler photo by Steve Maslowski, FWS and copied from the Audubon: State of the Birds Watchlist website.  On this website, you can also listen to the Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler vocalizations.  Our bird was foraging in an oak tree and would pop out of the leaves just long enough for us to get our quick looks.
While at the ponds, I was able to get a couple of decent photos of non-target birds, but those I was still happy to see.
I was looking for a yellow and black bird, so when I glanced at this red-orange bird I wrote him off as a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).  Only on second glance did I realize that this was a posing Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra).  I also saw several while at Kerr WMA.
After reading my blog, a Michigan birding friend corrected my ID of this bird.  It is not a singing Olive Sparrow (Arremonops rufivigatus) as I originally wrote here.  Rather, he is a singing Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aimophilia ruficeps) and was still a pleasure to see.  The Olive Sparrow at Estero Grande State Park in Westlaco last January remains, secondary to this missed ID, still the only one I've ever seen.
I wrote about Red-eared Slider turtles in an earlier blog entry - see my post Sparrows and sunbathers dated April 18,2009 .  Texas is their natural range and I saw many at Lost Maples sunbathing on rocks. The water here is very clear and this turtle came swimming down the middle of the river - nice to see this way.
Prior to this trip to Texas I had only seen Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) twice - a female bird in Ontario in my early birding career was my life bird.  In February, 2008 I saw my first male Painted Bunting on my Florida trip with Don Chalfant and friends.  This trip I saw many at Lost Maples.  Extraordinary bird!  This bird was photographed at the Lost Maples feeder station while we waited for a hoped for Varied Bunting (Passerina versicolor) that had been seen the day before. Unfortunately, the Varied Bunting did not show for us. There were a lot of other good birds at the feeders, but ... c'est la vie.

Finally, I'll add this dramatic-looking Texas wildflower.  Antelope Horn (Asclepias asperula) is in the milkweed family.  I saw it in many places.  The plant is considered to be poisonous but many medicinal herbs are made from it.
Yet to bloom
For comparison, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) most familiar to me and our Monarch butterflies.  This photo was taken at Crosswinds Marsh, Wayne County, Michigan on July 4, 2009.  You can enlarge this photo by clicking on it.  The milkweed plant is very different, but can see small similarities in the flower.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory - cold and Snowy (Owl) spring fling

The past weekend was occupied by a trip to Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Chippewa County, Michigan.  On Thursday morning I picked up my friends, the Eysters - Diana, Harold and Artemis - in Chelsea and we set off from there for WPBO.  The first surprise was having my brother, Tom, drive up alongside us on US 127 just south of Clare.  When a driver in a big pick-up truck in the left lane came alongside me and blew his horn, I was trying to figure out what I had done to offend this driver.  I looked closely at the driver and then looked away.  I looked back and saw the driver smiling, waving and making funny faces.  It was my brother!  Now how often does that happen?  Furthermore, I have not seen Tom since before Christmas.

Tom and Cathy, photo by Diana Newman.  How often does this happen?

The rest of the trip up to the upper peninsula was uneventful - none of us met up with any other family members.  We arrived at the Vagabond Motel around 6:00 pm, enough time to check-in, unpack and take a quick trip to the point.

Whitefish Point lighthouse on Thursday evening - it was cold and the sun was setting.
Friday morning was sunny and looked to be the start of a great day.  Out at the point it was cold, but bright, and the Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) were flying.  Unfortunately, there was a head wind that prevented them from flying across the water to Canada.  Some hawks, like the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), flew without hesitation.  A few Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis)  also set off on the 14 kilometer trans-water flight.  The sharpies were forced to remain behind.

One Sharpie perched on the "merlin pole" contemplating his chances and perhaps looking for small bird meal at the same time.  

Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) were also flying around the tip and seemed also to want  attempt the crossing.  For both these species the wind was too strong.

There were a few Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) flying around and some made the attempt to fly across the water when others remained behind.

Sharpies are fast flyers and they flew with the wind to make their flight even speedier.  I attempted many shots like the one above, and this was one of my better shots.  Many of the frames did not even contain a bird.

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), along with White-throated and Song, was hanging around the feeders. 

Out on the water this handsome Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) was just one of several expected waterfowl species.  Red-breasted Mergs (Mergus serrator), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) were perhaps the common mergs' most numerous companions.   There was one flyby Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) and several Common Loons (Gavia immer) floated out in front of the harbor.  A female Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) wearing scruffy plumage also made an appearance.

Since the birding was slow at the point, we took a drive to Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Here our best birds were a calling Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and an eye level Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphrapicus varius.)  This is the exact moment my batteries decided to run out of juice.  Later I settled for sapsucker holes found in a jack pine tree.  Not quite the same but still interesting.  I found a dead White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) at Tahquamenon that I found interesting for its diminutive size and visualization of the crossed bill, often difficult to see in the field.

I am not trying to be gory, but the construction of the crossed bill is easily seen on this dead bird.  After I finished my photographs, I gave this bird a proper burial beneath some leaves under a jack pine.

Around the time of our visit to Tahquamenon, the weather heated up significantly.  We all began to shed jackets and sweaters.  Not much was happening at Tahquamenon, not even in the ice cream department, and we left there to go to the Rivermouth Campground on the other side of M-123.  We walked a trail and the best bird here was a vocalizing Merlin (Falco columbarius.)  It took some time to locate this bird and to identify it.  None of use had heard this plaintive and insistent vocalization before.  The bird obliged us by flying over while continuing its rapid kek kek kek (or something like that) calling.

We also had time for tree climbing.  Did I say that the birding was slow?

Even if the birding was slow, the beauty of this location is breathtaking.  Secondary to the exposure, the above photo does not really reveal the full beauty, but you get the idea.

After the long drive up on Thursday I had not slept well the night before.  I had little enthusiasm for returning to the cold point (the weather had returned to being cold) for owling at dusk.  But Diana, Harold and Artemis talked me into it.  And, it's a good thing, too.

Nearly to the point we found this beautiful Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) taking a stroll across the middle of the road.  Literally, it appeared to be in no hurry.  Of course, it was difficult to escape the joking I received for my earlier reluctance for going back to the point. What a beautiful bird!

We made no attempt to find Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) this trip and this is the closest we came to seeing them.  The penny is for size reference.  Without the expertise of my friends, Harold and Artemis, I would never have identified this as Spruce Grouse scat.

Despite thunder and lightening, that three of the four of us never heard on Friday night, we all slept well.  Saturday morning was cold and damp.  Our first indication that the prior night's weather might bring promising results was the report of a Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) camped out at the very tip.  We raced out there to see just a tiny bit of the top of the bird's head peeking over a long log.  This was disappointing as Snowy Owl was a life bird for both Harold and Artemis.  Understandably, neither wanted to count such a limited look.   Much later in the day, when all the excitement had died down, I took my scope out so that Diana and Artemis would get a proper look.  Earlier, Harold had done the same with other friends. 


Before we could get out to the Snowy, we were distracted by seven beautiful breeding plumaged female Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).  The birds were well-camoflaged against the Lake Superior stones.  They still have a long way to go before reaching their breeding grounds.

Much later in the evening, Harold saw this beautiful juvenile bird launch off from the beach and head out over the water flying low and just above it as it continued its migration to Canada and on to the northern tundra.

Artemis scoping and sketching her life Snowy Owl.

A little later on Saturday morning, the waterfowl counter reported a Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) flying around the tip.  We intercepted this report on our radio and ran out to get great looks of the owl flying around the beach.  It landed in a location well down from the tip and we carefully followed it.  Harold was able to get a couple of decent photos before it took off again.  We did not pursue the owl further.

This White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) was out on the beach and found a pile of driftwood to hide in.  After a short time it escaped back into the dune grass and then back into the woods.

In the bushes behind the feeders a couple of Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) were hopping around. This photo taken and edited by Artemis Eyster.

This cute Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) was also in the trees behind the feeders; that is, when it wasn't on the feeders.

Attendance at the Spring Fling workshops was good secondary to the cold and windy weather. Almost everyone headed over to the Whitefish School for lunch and the guest speakers.  The lunch was a fund-raiser for the only senior at the Whitefish School.  While eating lunch the buzz got around that there was a good bird at the harbor.

This male American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana), photographed by Artemis Eyster (below), was only the second Chippewa county record for this species.

The harbor is one of my favorite places at the point.  It's like stepping back in time. After photographing the avocet we got a look at some of what makes it feel that way.

The sign on the door says Fish House and the sign over the big door says Brown's Fishery.

I stuck my camera in a broken window to take this photo.  There was a calendar on the wall that said 1992.  The desk was cluttered and messy, but overall it looked like the business owners had just got up and walked away one day and never returned.

By the end of our weekend we had tallied quite a few species, but as is typical for Whitefish Point we had to work hard for our sightings.  Even when the birding is slow the place is so beautiful.  It has some special feeling to it - the light, the air ... until our next visit. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Make sure you look down every once in awhile

Yesterday a Michigan birder, Chris Goulart, posted this to  His email tag is, significantly, miherp.  I think this is a timely and thoughtful reminder to us all who are not watching where we are driving while out searching for returning migrant birds. Other creatures are also active on the roads and trails as this is their mating season as well.  If enough time is spent in the field, we are bound to cross paths with animals other than birds. I received Chris's permission to reprint his piece in my blog.  

This image was copied from a May 16, 2007 entry to the now inactive blog titled Carolina Mornings:  Life on the Crystal Coast.

Just a friendly reminder about a wildlife safety related topic.   While birding this spring and summer, please make sure that you take some time to look down and watch where you are going, especially when driving and looking for birds.  During a recent time out birding in northwestern Ohio, I came across an early season Water Snake that had been recently run over by an automobile, but was not yet dead.  To watch this poor animal writhing about prior to expiring ruined more than just what would have been a good day birding.  What is worse, all of the motor vehicles in this area were observed to be birders and it is almost a certainty that the snake was run over by someone looking for shorebirds, ducks or raptors and not paying attention to where they were driving.

In years past I have seen crushed turtles at Magee Marsh, squashed snakes at Point Pelee, and splattered frogs at Tawas Point during the height of migration in April, May, and June.  Although it is not realistic to assume all of the carnage was created by birders, it would be unlikely that many of the herp specimens were not killed as a result of persons looking up rather than where they were driving.
In my experience when a snake is seen on the roadway many drivers will go out of their way to ensure its immediate demise.  I have also observed cars swerve to purposely kill all manner of other animals including turtles, salamanders and even birds.  I am absolutely certain that no one on this list would ever engage in actions like this, but it is worth mentioning.

If you are out birding, especially in any riparian type of habitat, please make sure you are always aware of where you are driving.  If you see any cold-blooded creatures warming themselves on the road, ensure you do not hit them.  Further, and this is always a judgement call, if it safe to do so, you may consider moving an animal that is in danger of being hit to safety.  There are a legion of circumstances where this would be a bad decision.  Snakes and turtles may bite if handled and any time you are running around on the street other drivers can create an immediate hazard to life and limb.  I would never advocate putting your life or well-being in jeopardy to save an animal.  But there may be occasions when it is possible to safely intervene and prevent an unnecessary loss of life.

In summary, take the wonderful opportunities to bird and enjoy this great hobby of ours and ensure you appreciate the safety of all creatures in their natural environments.

When Chris reviewed my blog, he identified my snake - a Desert Glossy Snake (Arizona elegans eburnata)
I add my own near miss from Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona last April, 2008.  We never saw this big guy on the road and were lucky we missed hitting him.  As Chris suggests we were looking for birds and paying little attention to anything else.  I had already driven past when I noticed him in my rearview mirror.  I backed the car up, without running the snake over, so we could take photographs.  I took several photos but this is the only one that was worth keeping.  We looked through Peterson's reptile field guide but could not find a match to help us with its identity.  We spoke to locals who, upon making certain it was not a rattle snake, proposed possibilities that included corn snake and rat snake.  I'm pleased now to have the correct identity. Thanks, Chris  

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Celebrating a birthday and Hermit Thrushes at Belle Isle

This afternoon my friends, Randy Messick and Dana Novak, and their eleven month old twin sons, Henry and Oliver, went to Belle Isle to celebrate Randy's birthday and to do a little birding.  Both Henry and Oliver are teething so the outdoor adventure was a welcome distraction for them as well as for Dana and Randy.
This is Oliver.
This is Henry.
Starting out with a kid in each backpack.
Finishing up and everyone is still smiling.
 Oliver fell asleep in his backpack and Henry did not.  This turned out to be important later.
The secret, I learned from Dana and Randy, is to keep moving.  So, we did not stand still for too long at any one particular stop along the woodland trail.  Our first intriguing sound was the partial song of a warbler.  I said Black-throated Green (Dendroica virens) and Dana and Randy favored Northern Parula (Parula americana.)  As it turns out, both are possible on April 19th. But we never did see the bird so its identity remains a mystery.

We were accompanied by Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) all the way around the woodland trail seeing perhaps five or six.
I was pleased with these photos, especially the one below where the bird is entirely unobstructed.
The south side of the trail was definitely birdier.  We saw all of the expected woodpeckers and of these two vocalizing Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) were the best.  Brown Creepers (Certhia americana), Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalamus) finished up the migrant list.  The resident birds were all present and vocalizing.  Of note, we did not see a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata); still needed by all of us for the first of the season.

Following Belle Isle we went to Hamtramck for a late lunch at Polonia's Restaurant on Yemens Street (as always, I wish I took photographs of the restaurant.)  This is where we found out the benefit of Oliver's nap in his backpack.  Both boys ate a little of their own lunch and then it all proved too much for Henry who did not have the benefit of a nap.  We all took turns walking him around much to the delight of the other diners.  The most frequently asked question was "are they twins?"  It occurred to me that Dana and Randy must be asked this question all the time.  They confirmed that they hear this often and while they always answer politely, they also have a string of responses that they use for their own amusement.

It was a great day to be out and not in - not as nice as the past three days - but, the weather still cooperated fairly well.  I was happy that I could spend this time Dana and Randy and the kids.

Postscript:  Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations on the travel channel, recently filmed a segment for the show at Polonia's Restaurant.  It will be aired sometime in May.  Keep your eyes open. 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sparrows and sunbathers

Technically spring began nearly one month ago, but April 16th, 17th and 18th brought the real deal.  Thursday evening, April 16th, I took another walk along the Rouge River channel.  I saw Northern Rough-wing Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) and Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), all three my first of the season in Michigan.
Field Sparrow, above and below.
A few American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are still around.
Both the Field Sparrow and the American Tree Sparrow were doing some talented aerial bug catching,  feeding behavior not typically expected of a sparrow, but the air was full of newly hatched gnats. 

On Friday, the 17th, I took the afternoon off work so that I could have my kitchen cupboards trimmed out. I didn't want to be in the guys way so I drove over to the Henry Ford Estate woods near U of M Dearborn and the Rough River Bird Observatory.  I walked through the garden area near the estate house and around the pond.  As it turned out there were not many birds around.  Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and a singing Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) were the most notable.
Throughout the woods the ground was carpeted by this blue spring flower.

The sunbathers, however, were present in good numbers.  I counted approximately 40 painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) hauled out on logs and downed trees anywhere there was a resting spot in the sun. 
Some tiny, like this cute little guy and his shadow.
Some medium to large; the largest turtle in the center had a deformity on the top of his carapace.
 And then there were these two medium-sized opportunists sunbathing on the back of a large snapper (Chelydra serpentina.)
Too bad this photo is not better.  This is a cropped photo of three distant turtles in poor light. At the time I probably thought all three were painted turtles.  The turtle on the left, however, is not a painted.
Cropped again for a closer view, the turtle above is a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans.)  This is the turtle popular with the pet trade in the U.S. and many other countries.  I had one when I was a kid.  Even in captivity they can grow quite large.  Despite the poor lighting, if you look closely you can see the red stripe behind the turtle's eye.  The red-eared slider's natural range is mostly south and west of Michigan, but thanks to the pet trade, its range has increased as people release them into rivers, ponds and lakes.
When I add the cropped view of the painted turtles, you can also clearly see the differences in the carapace shape and markings and the difference in markings on the feet and legs.
Here's another red-eared slider photo that I took in Texas at the end of January, 2009.  Texas is part of the slider's natural range. To me it appears that the structure of this turtle's carapace is smoother and more domed-shaped.  The pond where this photo was taken was where we also saw the Masked Duck (Nomonyx dominicus.)  See my February 3, 2009 blog entry titled, Can one ever see too many Green Jays? 
C'mon you can do it - get up there!  Did I say I have a fondness for turtles?

Back to birds:  I have yet to see a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) this spring, but that may change when I go to Belle Isle with friends tomorrow.  This evening I added two new birds to my yard list; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) bringing my yard total to 65.   The weather is not predicted to be as nice over the next several days, but there is no denying that spring has finally arrived in Michigan.