Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mt. Zion National Park

I'm so late in posting this trip and my photos.  The back story:  on October 31st I flew to Salt Lake City to attend a conference and took three days at the front end for vacation.  I arrived on a mild Monday afternoon and drove to Antelope Island State Park.  Originally I had planned to stay around the Salt Lake City area which is in northeast Utah.  But weather predictions for Tuesday, November 1st were calling for 45 degrees and rain mixed with snow and sleet.  Even though this kind of weather had not yet arrived in Michigan, I knew it was right around the corner.  I was not quite ready to face it on a vacation day.  I decided then to take the plunge and do the long drive to southern Utah for their spectacular canyon national parks.  After my Antelope Island visit I drove well south of Salt Lake City and stayed the night in a motel for an early morning departure straight south on I-15 to Mt. Zion National Park.  This was the national park furthest south and the one I had heard the most about.   

I arrived just as the sun was lighting up the tops of the red rock cliffs. There were hardly any cars on the road.  I received a surprise when I arrived at the Mt. Zion park gates.  Typically there is a $25.00 entry fee. I was waved in by a park attendant who was apparently still setting up.  "Just go in?" I asked.  "That's right." and he waved me by him.

The beauty of this kind of landscape, while obvious, is difficult to capture in photos.  Around each curve in the road is a scene more spectacular than the one before.  I drove to the visitor center for a park map and to get an idea of how to spend the day.  The ranger was a birder and knowledgeable.  She highlighted all of the doable hikes for a one day visit. 

My first hike was to the Emerald Pools - a series of three pools each going higher in elevation.  The waterfall in the photo above was between the first and second pools.    

This handsomely posing Western Jay (Aphelocoma californica) popped up and stayed long enough for me to snap three photos - two of the photos were of the bird facing me, but in the photo above you can see the glint in its eye.  In this same location there were also a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), one even singing. But probably the best bird here for me was a Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli).  One was actively feeding very close but moving too quickly for me to get a photo.

The above photo shows the canyon walls around the upper emerald pool. By this time of the day it was sunny, bright and warm.  I shed my sweater and fleece vest as I hiked up.  

This little bluet landed on a sunny rock surface.  As in the east, Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) is the most common and widespread, but other bluets are also found in southern Utah.  An expert would need to identify for me.  

A small brown lizard did the same.  This time of year the canyon gets very cold at night.  These small creatures need to warm up to start their day.

The Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus) was my best surprise of the day.  From the park ranger I knew they were present, but I didn't really expect to see one.  There is a backstory here, too.  In 2008 I took a trip to southeast Arizona - my first birding trip to the southwest - with Maryland friends Mark Linardi and Steve Sanford.  We handily saw Cactus, Bewick's and Rock wrens, but the Canyon Wren was a holdout. We heard them all over but never saw one.  Finally, near Patagonia at a roadside pulloff and while looking for Thick-billed Kingbird, we briefly saw a distant Canyon Wren scuttle across a rock surface and disappear into a canyon crevice.  We never did find the Thick-billed Kingbird and that distant and brief view of the Canyon Wren remained our only one for the trip.  I can now finally say I've seen the Canyon Wren well. Along this Mt. Zion trail, and later in the day along another trail, they were handily in view and like any wren they were busy searching for food, calling to each other and popping up to perch every so often.   

Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi) was another bird seen nicely along the trail.  Unfortunately, the photo above is the best I could get. In this location I heard the ruckus of innumerable small bird notes. Easy to find the spot - at least two or three dozen Ruby-crowned Kinglets were in a tizzy.  Amongst them were a couple of Juniper Titmice and the Canyon Wren even joined in.  They were all buzzing around a yew-like tree and I thought, "there is something in this tree."    

Of course, I was hoping for a western species owl, but I was still pleased to find this Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus).  The tree was along a steep embankment and my search for the owl took some maneuvering which did then scare away the kinglets - apparently satisfied they had done their job.  Here the owl is awake and looking at me as if to say "thank you."

Moments later it was sleeping.  Ah, how I admire that skill to quick sleep.  Hopefully, it was able to enjoy some peace after all that.

From a distance this squirrel could be mistaken for an ordinary gray squirrel.  Up close this Rock Squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) has a pretty speckled coat and tail.  

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) were common throughout the park and quite tame.  

I was hoping to see American Dipper in this beautiful river valley.  No such luck.

With Mt. Zion's massive vertical cliffs, I wondered if I might see some climbers.  These two had attracted a crowd that were glued to their precipitous efforts.  You can tell how high up they are on the rock surface by how small their images are in this photograph.

A Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) paused to drink from the river's edge. Several were around with Yellow-rumped (Audubon) warblers (Setophaga coronata).

Mt. Zion was not the birdiest place I've ever been and it would be difficult for me to recommend it for birding, but I did see some good birds - especially given the time of year.  Apparently, though I did not see any, American Dipper is common here.  Of note, I was told of a location where California Condors are now being seen.  Unfortunately, they did not make an appearance for me.   

I have not visited many of our national parks, especially the western parks.  I would recommend Mt. Zion in a New York minute.  It is spectacular beyond words.  Also, my November 1st visit was perfect. There were plenty of other visitors but not the crush of people that would be more typical in summer. Because of my long drive back to Salt Lake City I finally had to tear myself away around 4:00 pm.  It was hard to do.  The sun was just starting to set in the canyon and I could tell I was going to miss something special.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pacific Loon, Wm. Sterling State Park, Monroe County, Michigan

Probably the most pleasant and easiest rarity chase I've ever done. Several local birders enjoyed a companionable morning watching a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) make feeding circuits around the northern end of a lagoon that also held a Common Loon (Gavia immer), uncountable numbers of Common Mergansers and Bonaparte's Gulls.

Our mild, end-of-November weather encouraged lingering for a chance of photographs.  These are my best with my point and shoot.  Very cooperative and fun bird to spend time with.

The Pacific and the Common occasionally swam near each other.  This distant view of both shows side-by-side differences in bill and head structure.  Good to remember. 

For really great photos of both birds, plus a nice sunny shot of Common Mergs check out Jerry Jourdan's blog in my links at right.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Great Salt Lake

I attended an Oncology Nursing Society conference in Salt Lake City, Utah during the first week of November.  I had never been to Salt Lake City or to Utah before.  So I took three days vacation at the start of the conference to look around.

I arrived at the SLC airport about 2:00 pm on Monday afternoon and picked up my econo car from Alamo.  From there I found Antelope Island State Park on the GPS I rented and made my way north on the I-15.

Shortly before my visit, the island's buffalo (Bison bison), our largest land animal, had been rounded up for their annual health inspection and to give the young ones vaccinations, etc.  However, a few of the "old bachelors" remained free.  Just beyond where these three are grazing is the entry road to Antelope Island.

The Great Salt Lake waters that lap the shores of Antelope Island State Park are the place to see Eared Grebes (Podiceps nigricollis).  This flotilla contains a few scaup (Aythya sp.) and Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) otherwise these are all Eared Grebes.  There were several large flocks like this.  

The shores are also a good spot for flocks of American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana).  A flock of flying avocets is really a spectacular thing, with black and white wings flashing, but I couldn't capture their flash in a photo.

Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) were also common hunting over the island grasses.  

I've seen Chukar (Alectoris chukar) in England and in Bulgaria, but these are my first seen in North America.  In addition to these perched birds, as I was leaving the island I flushed a large group that were feeding along the edge of the road.

These Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana), fastest mammal in North America, were neatly hidden in the long grass to graze.    

This White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) was hiding in tall grass and scrubby bushes.

On my 2009 car trip to Idaho I saw only three Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia).  There were several on the island and I later saw them in a Salt Lake City neighborhood.  During 2010 and 2011 trips to England and Bulgaria I saw how common Magpie (Pica pica) is in Europe.  Common or uncommon, magpies are big, spectacular birds.    

For whatever reason, this coyote (Canis latrans) was my favorite sighting on Antelope Island.  There were two and the one in the photo above paused long enough to allow a couple of photos - such a beautiful and serene face.   

Ravens (Corvus corax) were common on Antelope Island.  Passerine species I saw on the island included Western Meadowlarks, White-crowned Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds.

The Northern Harrier was hunting along the shoreline and I saw it switch directions and fly out over the lake carrying food.  It appeared to head for the mountain on the opposite shore.

Antelope Island State Park was worth the visit.  The panoramic mountain views beyond the island at sunset were beautiful.  On a late Monday afternoon, there were few other visitors except some cyclists and I felt like I had the place to myself.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chipmunk control on Belle Isle

Yesterday, a relatively unbirdy Sunday morning, I got lucky [again] with a Cooper's Hawk flying in to perch, completely unobstructed, on a fallen log.  

The bird flew in so suddenly that I did not notice it was holding something in its talons.  

The unfortunate meal appeared to be more furry than feathery.  Then I saw the tail listless againt the brown of the tree bark - the shape and size of a chipmunk's tail.  There is no shortage of chipmunks at Belle Isle! 

While the bird was perched I didn't notice the meal.  When the Coop took off, the chipmunk was dangling from its talons.  In the photo above the bird is bending over for a nibble just before flying off.

Last year, about this same time, I came across a Cooper's Hawk perched in low shrubbery.  That bird was obstructed by leaves and shadows in my photos.  Cooper's Hawk is common on Belle Isle and it is uncommon not to see and hear one or two on any given visit.

New shorebird habitat in Dearborn

I don't know if it's just temporary or if it will become permanent.  For the past several years there has been a large water management and river restoration project at several sites along the Rouge River in Dearborn.  The areas affected have been torn up for years.  For this particular project along Military Road between Cherry Hill and Michigan Avenue, a woods was torn down to proceed with the project.

Two weeks ago I happened upon this location to find two Killdeer and eight Mallards feeding in the shallow, grassy water.  Despite only the Killdeer being present at that time, the habitat still looked very promising for other shorebirds.  I stopped by again on Sunday evening. Two Solitary Sandpipers were present and feeding actively.  

Whatever restoration of this location into shallow, muddy, grassy habitat was intentional or accidental is unclear.  All of our recent rain may have created the shallow pools that are present now, but it appears to be a spot that will collect river overflow during flood times.  A few large fallen trees remain in the water which would be a surprise if it was not intentional.  I think of Dearborn residents as typically preferring non-native, and even invasive, botanical species for landscaping that has been manicured to within an inch of its life.  This spot is in one of Dearborn's high-end neighborhoods - so it will be really special if this is left as is.  Over time it will probably grow over, but for now, we have some really nice shorebird habitat.

The above video is about four minutes long.  Prior to shooting this video, I saw the bird swim across a pool of water and I was hoping to capture that again.  No such luck.  

The spot is halfway between my mother's home and my home.  So I hope to make several more visits this fall.

Update:  The hoped-for shorebird habitat is gone.  Shortly after this post was written with the the Solitary Sandpiper - which I think is a great bird for Dearborn - the wet field was essentially dry and was planted with trees.  Oh well, it was hopeful while it lasted.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

August shorebird video from Point Mouillee

Better late than never ...  

For full screen viewing double-click on the arrow and then view full screen video from the You Tube page by clicking on the full screen symbol in the lower right corner. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Broadwing Hawk weekend

With visiting birding friends in from England and Pennsylvania, this past weekend turned out to be very nice.  The little birds were generally scarce, but the broadwings did not disappoint.

My camera was able to capture just these few birds out of a kettle of hundreds.  As it turned out, kettles of over a 1,000 broadwings proved common on Saturday, September 17th.  The Detroit River Hawk Watch recorded 190,000+ migrating broadwing hawks flying over the Lake Erie boat launch on this day.

After leaving Lake Erie Metropark we stopped along other areas of Point Mouillee without success before continuing down to Sterling State Park. In last year's shorebird pond - a little too deep for shorebirds this year - there were 75 Great Egrets.

Ceder Waxwings were plentiful this weekend.  There were a few warblers and vireos around, but generally we did not have good luck with these - especially on Saturday.

Other good finds at Sterling was the Fiery Skipper above, followed by this very fresh Red Admiral below.

On Sunday morning we made our way to Belle Isle.  There was a long going on in Detroit - especially in the running and biking categories. Nevertheless we snuck through all the roadblocks and made our way to Belle Isle's nature trail for a very slow walk around.  There were ten or more Swainson's Thrushes.  None were seen.  A few warblers showed themselves.  Perhaps the best was a Philadelphia Vireo.

Finally, on a log in the muddy river running through the nature trail was this surprising turtle.  It's identification stumped me.  A google search revealed that it's a Yellow-bellied Slider.  I don't think I've every seen a Yellow-bellied Slider before.  It's non-native to Michigan belonging instead in Virginia to Florida.  It is, however, a pet trade turtle thus explaining it's presence in the Belle Isle River.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Central Park, the Ramble

A hematology conference took me to NYC this past weekend.  The conference was held in a Times Square hotel and this turned out to be a short walk to Central Park.  I skipped out of the multiple myeloma lectures and made my way to the famous "Ramble" to see what it was like and to see some fall migrants.  It took me awhile to find it - Central Park is gigantic - but, then I did.

I knew I had finally found "The Ramble"

Red-eared Slider

Park bench

One of the six or seven warbler species seen - Canada Warbler

Miriam, Janice, Bill, Anne
We birded together - all were well acquainted with
the park.
Later Janice and Bill showed me how to use the subway,

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bulgaria: Krapets to Sofia via the central Balkans

Evening of June 15th through departure:  our final days

Recognizing that the trip was winding down made me want to savor every sighting, bird or otherwise.  In just a few more days I would be back at work with only memories of a great birding trip and wonderful vacation.

The evening of June 15th would be our last night at the Hotel Yansita. When we returned from the day of birding we noticed that the hotel had other guests from Romania who arrived for the weekend and were swimming and relaxing by the pool.  Just before dinner I saw Mladen heading out with his camera and tripod.  Knowing where he was going, I asked to join him.  On both prior pre-breakfast walks we saw an active, singing Barred Warbler. That early in the morning the bright eastern sun made taking photographs nearly impossible.

Mladen used his phone and trusty speaker device to call the Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria).  The male responded immediately and flew to leafless branches of a tall tree across a field to continue singing.  Soon the bird flew in closer but proved to be an elusive subject for a photograph by diving into the bushes.

While waiting for a bit of time to elapse before again calling the Barred Warbler, a Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) perched on a nearby branch.  Throughout the trip I had tried many times for photos of the Red-back Shrike always with generally poor results.  This was my best opportunity and one of the two shots I took turned out to be acceptable.

Again Mladen called for the Barred Warbler and this time the female popped up and posed very nicely for just enough time for the photo below.

The largest of the Sylvia warblers, the Barred is a unique appearing bird.  Mladen played the Barred's song again.  The male bird responded and we could see it moving around in the bushes.

Finally, the male Barred Warbler popped up and presented itself just long enough for a couple of shots and the one above was the best.

After dinner several of us were sitting around the pool chatting.  Doug Woods came over to the table to report that an otter was feeding just beyond the breakwater.  We all jumped up, ran into our rooms for cameras, and ran out of the hotel courtyard to the breakwater across the street.  This turned the heads of the Romanians who, I'm sure, wondered where the fire was.  By the time I walked the thin edge of  the breakwater the otter was a bobbing head quite far out and in rapidly dimming light.  All I can say about the otter is that I saw it - sort of.   

Balchik (via Krapets) to Sofia looks like this on google maps.  The next morning it was time to leave.  We were down to our last two days of birding in Bulgaria.  Our first stop of the morning would be a return to Balchik.  We had visited Balchik in the late afternoon on June 13th to look unsuccessfully for the Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo).  The Eagle Owl is such a desirable bird that the second visit was anticipated with mixed expectations - knowledge that we were unsuccessful once, but hopes that a second visit would bring success.

Another bright, sunny morning washed out the sky over the white cliffs where we hoped to find a perched owl.  We had two spotting scopes, Carol's and Mladen's, and the rest of us searched with binoculars.  Even Dencho, the van driver, searched.  He had found the owl for another birding group.

A Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus) flew over.  Mladen folded his tripod and it seemed like we were going to give up.  Instead, we all loaded up into the van and drove down the road to a different area of the cliffs and began looking again.  After a quick search over the cliffs, Mladen moved purposefully down the road and set up his scope.  He raised his arms in the air. Eagle Owl!  Oh, my goodness, I don't know about anyone else, but I couldn't believe it.

The Eagle Owl is in the right cliff cavity of this attractive rock formation.  In the heavily cropped photo below the bird is seen in the right corner of the cavity.  My photos gives the impression that we did not see the bird well.  Through the spotting scope, however, the bird was well seen. Carol even got quite a good digiscoped photo through her Zeiss scope. At times it was apparent that the bird, a fledged juvenile, was watching us. 

We allowed ourselves a bit of celebratory leisure but eventually, with happy reluctance, we moved on.  The next stop was a meadowed wetland in Botevo to look for Ruddy Shelduck.  This was a completely beautiful location.  It is here that I had my best look at Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg).  The Yellow Wagtail in Bulgaria is the subspecies feldegg, an attractive, dark-headed yellow wagtail.  

Under skies completely washed out by the bright sun, the wetlands water for the Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) is beyond the waterfall (above).  We never did see the shelduck.  That's not to say it wasn't present.  The pools of water were void of any waterfowl, but there were plenty of hiding places for waterfowl of any species in this wetland. 

I struggled to obtain an acceptable photo of any of the four shrike species we saw.  So it was with the Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator). I thought this bird was very attractive, perhaps my favorite shrike of the trip.  The only photo opportunity the Woodchat offered yielded the above effort.  

Leaving Boteva, we drove by Mladen's town of Shumen, a town with a population of just under 100,000.  We knew we would see the town where Mladen lived and I thought we would have lunch there.  But we continued to drive for twenty minutes more to an outdoor restaurant on a lake.  Before lunch was served, Mladen, never resting from finding us a good bird, scoped out the lake to make sure we wew not missing anything.  

Above, Yoav Chudnoff, our fearless and funny leader. Here I imagine that he is looking forward to the hours ahead when he can finally rest.  It was clear that the amount of planning and organization that goes into arranging a trip such as ours is enormously challenging to do well.  Yoav did it well, always the calm and masterful negotiator.    

Following lunch we embarked on our second longest travel segment of the trip to take us to the central Balkans.  Much of the trip was on highway roads and we had no birding stops to lessen the travel time. 

In the early evening we were back in the central Balkans and checking into the Hotel Sima, another out-of-season ski resort.  After the hot, sunny weather of the past four days, the cool mountain air was refreshing.      

After check-in we had time before dinner for an exploration up the mountain to see what might be around.  A Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) called from the tall, deciduous trees.  We called again for Gray-headed and White-backed woodpeckers with no success.  

Continuing up the hill to the open meadow with few scattered trees and bushes, a dog barked from the location of a bundled red tarp.  There were few birds around and Mladen suggested we call it quits in favor of returning for dinner.  We would be back in the morning.  Dinner at the Hotel Sima restaurant was very nice - with the wonderful cucumber, tomato and Bulgarian cheese salad, which I sadly realized might be my last, followed by an entree of tender pork medallions with a light gravy and potatoes.

This restaurant also had a wine selection which included wines from Bulgaria's wine growing regions, some of which we passed though on our second day of the trip.  With Bob's help we selected a couple of Bulgarian reds and a white.  I found each enjoyable.  Earlier on the trip I had a glass of red wine which I described as thin and harsh. Bob tasted it and nodded in agreement.  "It's oxidized," he said.
He explained that oxidation occurs with sloppy attention to detail in the wine-making process.

At various times on the trip we heard about Bob Traverso's passion for wine-making.  Bob was a native Californian from Italian immigrant grandparents who grew up drinking wine.  First his grandfather watered it down half and half, then a little less water until, as a kid still, he enjoyed wine with meals.  To Bob, the wines we selected for dinner, "were not great, but nice."  It was over the Hotel Sima dinner that he described for us the process of making wine from start to finish.

After dinner while many of us were still sitting around drinking wine, Yoav left to see if he could call out a Tawny Owl.  Many of us didn't even notice he was gone.  Mladen's telephone rang.  Yoav was calling to say that he had a Tawny Owl. We ran out to the dark woods behind the hotel.  On his cell phone, Yoav played the vocalization again, and immediately the Tawny Owl (Strix oluco) flew in to perch on an overhead branch and looked down on us.  A completely cute owl! Although it looks like a mini-Barred Owl (Strix varia) and is of the same family, its responsiveness to hearing its vocalization and its alert behavior reminded me of our Eastern Screech Owl (Meloscops asio).

The next morning we returned to the high meadow for our pre-breakfast walk.  Through the spotting scope we saw our only Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrenella) - see my earlier blog entry titled Buntings - of the trip, as well as male and female Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra).  While the others left to call for, yet again, the Gray-headed Woodpecker, I remained behind for this photo of the male Whinchat.  In retrospect, a good move.  The woodpecker was not seen.

When we left Hotel Sima, we drove along the road above the hotel to bird the high meadow.  Here we saw close up the tame, but free, horses that we had seen from afar the evening before.  Yoav and Dencho spent a good amount of time amongst them with Dencho taking close-up photographs.  The target bird here was Gray Partridge (Perdix perdix) and we were unsuccessful.  This high location in the central Balkans was beautiful and, with the horses and other birds we saw, it was a pleasure to be here. 

In the shadow of a gigantic, and not very attractive, cement monument built by the Russians in 1949 to honor Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman empire, we took this group photograph.  Only Dencho, our van driver, is missing.  I thought about how Mladen, now age 32, would have been less than ten years old when the Berlin wall came down and just a couple years older when the official break-up of the Soviet Union finally occurred.  I thought of how Yoav, born in Israel and who, over 20 years ago, married a Bulgarian woman who received her Ph.D. in Bulgarian studies from Temple University in Philadelphia.  Now their daughter is a law student at Drexel University.  Considering all that has occurred between then and now, surely this must represent what is good about globalization.  I felt completely privileged to have visited this beautiful eastern European country.  

We had lunch at an attractive outdoor cafe where the young woman owner worked so hard to prepare a meal for our completely unexpected large group.  Watching her come out from the kitchen to check on our meals reminded me, again, of how hard people work.  Thinking back on this we really were not appreciative guests, leaving most of the food on our plates.  She must have wondered what hit her.  She may also have had a few thoughts about Americans.

A couple more stops to look for raptors and then we reached the outskirts of Sofia.  We had not seen the city of Sofia at all and Dencho drove us around the busy city center while Yoav called out buildings of historical, cultural, municipal and religious significance.

We arrived back at the Hotel Edi for our final night.  The Gray Wagtails were still present.  Many of us would depart early the next morning for Sofia Airport to begin our return flights.  That night at dinner we shared good birds, laughs, stories and memories.  

Just as the moon rose over the Black Sea at dusk to end a long day of birding, my Bulgaria trip was over.


Butterflies seen: