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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Possibly Impossible Identifications

What do three self-proclaimed herpers do when they’ve got a free weekend? Head down to South Carolina of course! We’d heard through the grapevine that the Sandhills of South Carolina are even better than those in North Carolina for photographing things like Scarlet Snake, Mud Snake, and Canebrake Rattlers. Before we got far down the road, I noticed the bird life starting to change. Mississippi Kites became a common sight soaring through the air overhead, and one field we stopped at had five individuals hunting in the mid-afternoon sun.

Would've got a better picture, but I had an inferior camera at the time. Still - Mississippi Kite!

Once we reached our destination, we immediately began looking for herps, but we couldn’t find much. Turtles basking on nearby logs dove down to quickly for us to identify them to species. So I turned to the next best thing – there were a bunch of fish around, so I decided to start a fish life list! Before long, I’d netted one of the insanely common Eastern Mosquitofish that frequent pond shores around here.

Almost impossible to swing the net without catching one of these guys...

As we watched Eastern Kingbirds flycatch from road signs and Anhingas preening on tall snags, the skies began to darken around us. Huge rain clouds moved in and pretty soon raindrops began to splatter on the hot asphalt. Good thing too, because it turns out herps love rain! Just after I’d donned an ill-fitting parka, we found an Eastern Box Turtle crossing the path, and over by our car, we found this little guy trying to make it off the road. We’re still not great at turtle identification, but we got a couple photos of his plastron that secured him as a little Musk Turtle.

Hard to believe how much time we spent debating the Musk Turtle ID... he stank to high heaven!

Once the herps started coming, they wouldn’t stop. Green Treefrogs and Southern Leopard Frogs began to join the chorus of Southern Cricket Frogs, and we even found an Eastern Mud Turtle in the middle of the road. Circling back towards some of the ponds we’d checked earlier in the day, we found this big female turtle hauled out onto a sandy hillside. If the Musk Turtle was hard for us to identify, the complex of cooters and sliders is even worse. Luckily, she showed some pattern in the shell, which meant she was a cooter – but South Carolina gets two species. So we decided to photograph her at all angles for documentation, and it turned out to be a good move. Our suspicions were confirmed, and this big South Carolinian turtle has a plastron that perfectly matches the Florida Cooter.

This has got to be the epitome of impossible turtle ID. No idea how herpetologists first described these things!

By now, the sky had grown black and the rain poured down. We couldn’t find any snakes in this dismal weather, but soon enough our headlights glared with bright dots hopping across the road. Mostly they’d end up being the mundane Southern Toad, but every once in a while we’d find a Green Frog or something better. Something better ended up being this nice Pine Woods Treefrog, which you may remember we found on our last visit to the Sandhills. But back then, we found the frog hopping through the ashes of a recently burned forest, meaning he had bits of crud all over his face. This one kept getting rained on, preserving the intricate pattern on its back.

It's a less natural background than the first one, but at least he didn't try to jump away!

While we were photographing the frog, a large white SUV came barreling down the road with its hi-beams on. As it slowed up, the driver turned on his blinding blue and white beacons, and a mustached man stepped out shining a Maglite in our face. “What’re you guys doing out here?” he asked in a thick southern accent. Truthfully, we answered: “Photographing a frog.” A similar situation we found ourselves in when we ran into the Army a couple weeks ago. “Y’all caught anything out here tonight? Mind if I check your vehicle?” Quickly we realized we weren’t being hounded by the police, but rather a National Fish & Wildlife officer looking to stop the poaching of snakes from the Sandhills Gamelands.

Wasn’t long before he realized we weren’t catching the herps, just photographing them. Plus he seemed impressed when we differentiated the calls of a Common Nighthawk, a Whip-poor-will, and a Chuck-wills-widow in front of him. He let us go without so much as a warning, but with the caveat that we had to be out of the Gamelands within an hour. Wouldn’t be an issue, we told him, as the heavy rain seemed to have kept our promised snakes underground. As we were heading towards the highway, Mark noticed an odd lump by the side of the road. “Looks like a toad,” he said as he pulled aside it, and Ali stuck his head out the window to check. “I think it’s a rock, man,” but Ali kept on looking before it dawned on him. “Wait – it’s a baby nightjar!”

Okay, I can pretend to identify difficult herps, but I just give up when it comes to fledgling Caprimulgids...

Sure enough, the fledgling nightjar did his best to stay motionless while we peered down at him. With all three local nightjar species in the vicinity, we couldn’t be quite sure which one we had. Overall, the shape of the bird suggested Common Nighthawk, but it had some odd brown flecking reminiscent of a Chuck-wills-widow. For the last week, we’ve been asking every birder we can think of, but apparently juvenile nightjar identification is difficult at best, impossible at worst. It’s too bad we didn’t stick around to see if a parent came down to feed it, but we had to get out of the Gamelands or risk a hefty fine.

With the NFWS ranger still cruising the roads, I decided to move the chick back into the forest, but as I cupped my hands the little bird got up on surprisingly long legs and ran off the road. All’s well that ends well, and we still had a whole night of rural road herping ahead of us. Turned out to be far more awesome than I could have possibly anticipated!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #7: Great Cormorant

By James

While I was writing this blog post, I realized that the Great Cormorant has been, for me, the Giving Bird. Though it’s cool enough by itself, I’ve always associated the Great Cormorant with awesome birding experiences, whether in Spain, Italy or at that old Coast Guard station on Pea Island.

I first saw this impressive bird along the Guadalquivir River that runs through Seville. After two weeks in Spain, I grew tired of birding the small municipal parks and after glancing at a map (apparently they still make those, weird!), I noticed a rather large park in the northwest corner of the city: Parque Alamillo quickly became my go-to birding spot. When I first decided to head down, I was not pleased about the 45-minute walk it took to get there. However, it turned out the walk along the Guadalquivir was fantastic for birding. While heading back from the park (more on that later), I saw a cormorant actually swimming on the water, instead of flying overhead as per usual. Much to my chagrin, the bird dove down before I was able to get a good picture. Then, an agonizing thirty seconds later, it surfaced close-by and give me a fantastic look at the brilliant blue eyes of the Great Cormorant.

I’ll always remember seeing these birds along the canals of Venice. It’s a city I’d always wanted to visit, though not for the birding (although I did get three lifers during my trip there). However, while I looked out across the Venetian Lagoon, I saw these large black birds preening on the pillars. I was shocked to see them in breeding plumage – I’ve been seeing Double-crested Cormorants for years, but never have I seen them with ridiculous-looking white necks like these Greats. It was almost like getting another lifer! I kept seeing these birds throughout my stay in Europe, and ran into them again back in the States.

Great Cormorants are pretty uncommon in North Carolina, but not hard to find given the right time and place. Apparently that time and place is Oregon Inlet in the dead of winter. We talked earlier about how we had found these birds on the Pea Island Christmas Bird Count, but it was a very unique experience for me. Robert and I have birded together for a while. We’ve shared a lot of life birds, and he’s seen me get a lot of life birds that he’d seen several times before. But this trip to the old Coast Guard station gave me the opportunity to get Robert a life bird that I’d already seen, and I took full advantage. I made sure that he knew all the times I saw them in Europe, and how much better the views were.

The last experience I’ll never forget once again found us at the old Coast Guard station, but I never actually saw the bird. The light was pretty good on the pillar where the Great Cormorant had been staying, and Robert wanted to check out his previous life bird once again. But thanks to the huge number of times I’ve seen them, and the sweet looks I got, I had no interest in walking across the highway to see a particularly dingy-looking individual. I argued that there were better birds to be seen if we walked out to the jetty. Robert conceded, and as fate would have it, that decision meant we walked past some reeds at the exact time that a small Dovekie floundered about, leading to one of our best birding experiences ever: saving an awesome and unusual bird from an uncertain fate.

I have had some incredible experiences with Great Cormorants, whether my breathtaking life looks, seeing them in full breeding plumage in what is quite possibly the most beautiful city in the world, or gloating as Robert enjoyed a bird I had enjoyed plenty of times before. But nothing quite beats totally ignoring them and instead pulling a stranded Dovekie out of a bush. The Great Cormorant is beautiful bird, and one of my favorites: the Giving Bird.    

Thursday, June 21, 2012

#54: Anna's Hummingbird - Famosa Slough, CA

There’s something about our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Occasionally you’ll see them flitting into your hummingbird feeder if you’ve got one, but mostly they’re flying away from you, with a series of high-pitched squeaks being the only evidence to their presence. They’re small, skittish, and sprightly – and the complete opposite of West Coast hummers.

The most common hummingbird in San Diego was the large Anna’s Hummingbird, a bold, brash, and brazen bird that I easily located my first day out West.  As I walked along the path at Famosa Slough, I heard a husky squeal coming from a nearby bush. At the top, a female sat confidently, daring me to venture closer. I inched forward, and still the female Anna’s stood her ground until I was less than a couple feet away. Had this been one of our East Coast hummers, it would’ve bailed long ago. But this is California baby!

By the time James showed up, I knew exactly where to find him his lifer Anna’s. While we saw a few full-gorgeted males, they chose to stick to the tree-tops. The females, however, still proved audacious, and James was able to snap this photo while one hovered at a flower, completely unconcerned at the six-foot human watching a couple feet away. Why can’t more hummingbirds be like Anna’s?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Rarest Frog on the East Coast

Okay, so maybe that’s not technically true. I heard there’s a rare leopard frog that lives in Central Park. But for a frog that has random disjunct populations in Alabama and New Jersey, it’s pretty cool that I can find one in North Carolina. That’s the entire reason I went down to the Sandhills on a mild June day with Mark K and Ali Iyoob.

Honestly, I started out disappointed. We flipped some wood and some tin, and couldn’t find any of the Carolina Sandhills specialties we’d been hoping for. While we stopped at a random bridge for some road crusing, Ali noticed a billow of silt moving through the creek beneath us. In true Ali fashion, he bounded down the hill, into the ankle deep water, and pulled out this prehistoric behemoth.

He put it on the paved shoulder so that we could see it in all its glory. The Eastern Snapping Turtle was none too pleased, lunging at our feet with a bite force that can break human bones. The turtle had a mangled shell on one side, a healed wound from an old altercation with a vehicle. Didn’t impact its temperament any – damn thing snapped at anything that moved!

Afterwards, we decided to check the fabled drop-zone for herps. But that didn’t stop me from noticing the breeding pairs of Orchard Orioles, or the Common Nighthawks calling in the distance. Ali called me on my cell, saying he’d spotted a Lark Sparrow flitting into a random grove of trees, but by the time I ran down, the bird dove into the low grasses, never to be seen again. I’d have to make do with this beautiful Pigmy Rattlesnake, likely the same individual we’d flipped a couple months ago, but clearly on the better side of its molt cycle.

By this time, the sun was setting, so we had to head out and look for the frogs we were here for. Driving past an old hobo camp and deep pits of sand, we had to end our forward journey once we reached an impassable patch of shifting mud. Not that it made a difference – once we reached our spot, we found a second ford of rocks and water, created by a beaver dam. Almost as if on cue, Mark spotted the American Beaver swimming in the nearby swamp, totally ignoring the humans who interrupted its daily routine.

As the sun started to set and the nighthawks started to call, we began to hear the native frogs start to call. At first, the only sounds we heard were Southern Leopard Frogs and Southern Cricket Frogs, and even between those two species it was almost deafening. The cricket frogs, by far the most common species we encountered, would leap out from in front of us, even while we walked through forest newly charred by controlled burns.

Finally, we started to hear the frogs we were looking for. They’d call from the tops of trees and down in the low shrubbery, but still we couldn’t locate them, despite having braved thick thorns. That’s when Ali noticed a dark shape hopping through the burnt undergrowth – surely, we had our amphibian! But not so fast…

It was brown rather than green, clearly a sign that we’d found the wrong frog. Still, it was a good one – a Pine Woods Treefrog, kind of boring but not something we’d heard calling. So it was new to us! But our quarry still eluded us, taunting us by calling from just a couple feet away. It became dark enough that we had to bust out the flashlights, finally spotting a bright green beacon in the light.

We’d found a pair of mating Pine Barrens Treefrog, a range-restricted species found in very specific pine forests of the East Coast. Even though they’re (apparently) relatively easy to find in the North Carolina Sandhills, you’d have to travel to the namesake Pine Barrens of New Jersey to find the next closest population. Due to the restriction of this pine habitat, they’ve been extirpated through most of their range, and only exist in a couple of disjunct populations. Thankfully, this copulation proves the Sandhills population is still going strong, and not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Elated at our rare find, we instead turned our focus to the hammer-like sounds we heard emanating from the swamp. They were the aptly-named Carpenter Frogs, whose deep  clicks and bangs literally sound like a construction site. But they always seemed to evade us, even when we could hear them quite close to the bank. Ali noticed once that seemed to favor a small pool next to the road, but every time we tried for the catch, it’d dive down beneath arm’s reach. So I tried a different strategy – I grabbed the net we’d brought, aimed it under the frog, and when it dove once again, I lunged. Sure enough…

I came up with the frog! At this point, something odd happened. The Army showed up – seriously! A bunch of camo-clad soldiers rolled up in four-wheel drives, and announced they’d be destroying the beaver dam that allowed us to comfortable cross the nearby stream. They weren’t kidding, and their lack of tools didn’t stop them – they backed up their giant truck, ran over the beaver dam, and celebrated when the carefully placed sticks fell apart to cause a small deluge.

Though they were destroying nature, the soldiers maintained it was for the good of the gamelands – the increased water supply would flood canals downstream, increasing the stability of the nearby roads. They were, however, quite friendly, allowing us to photograph the Carpenter Frog in their headlights. After all, as one of them said, it was a Wednesday night. Why shouldn’t we be photographing frogs? To answer that, I’d say I honestly don’t have a better use of my time than photographing the unique wildlife of the Sandhills. I hope they understand – but I’m not expecting much of a response.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #6: Common Moorhen

By James

There are several North American birds that have a nearly identical European counterpart. Our Winter Wren is essentially indistinguishable from the Eurasian Wren. The Green-winged Teal is so similar to the Common Teal that it still hasn’t been split by the AOU. A couple months before I left for Spain, our Common Gallinule was split from Europe’s Common Moorhen, a bird I encountered in the urban Parque Maria Luisa.

(Spoiler: I also got the Eurasian Wren and the Common Teal, but we’ll get there eventually.) 

The Common Moorhen was a bird I’d been hoping to get, but I wasn’t expecting to find it in such a small pond. In fact, when I first found the bird I didn’t even have my camera me! I came back the next day and it was in the same pond, and while it seemed a little frightened of me it couldn’t really get too far.

As surprised as I was to find Common Moorhens in such an urban area, I was even more surprised to find that they were breeding in the park. When I visited the spot a few weeks later, I found a Common Moorhen, presumably the same one, swimming with offspring.

Unfortunately, as a result of the odd and jerky swimming motion of the moorhen, I was never able to get a fantastic picture, despite the fact that I was often within fifteen feet of them. Now I just need to find the American version of this cool and colorful waterfowl!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

These Aren't The Birds We're Looking For

Late last week, I received a second-hand report of breeding Barn Owls and their growing fledglings at our old standby of Mason Farm. Not willing to let a potential lifer go by the wayside, James and I headed out to see what we could find. We approached the boggy backside of the trail, where the owls were supposed to have been seen, but we couldn’t find anything resembling the tytonids we were searching for. Instead, we amused ourselves with a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that decided, in a rare show of compassion, to perch itself out in the open.

A cuckoo, out in the open? That's rarer than any vagrant I've ever seen!

Always the herpers, we couldn’t help but notice the non-avians around us. We found a small Southern Leopard Frog in an old creek-bed, but nothing really stood out. Just after enjoying the cuckoo, James happened to glance to the side of the trail. “Oh hey,” he remarked. “A tree frog!” Sure enough, a large Green Treefrog was nestled between some stiff grasses, trying his best to blend in. But he couldn’t fool us, and we ended up with some great looks as he clung to a nearby bush.

This is only the second I've ever seen, but I've a feeling their range around here is larger than I give them credit for.

But we couldn’t be distracted – we’d come to Mason Farm for owls. As we delved into the deep marshes and forests that surround the trail, I heard the roar of wind whipping through the surrounding trees. I looked up and saw some disturbingly dark-gray clouds, and instantly remembered that one Meteorology class I took in college – there’s often a down-gust of wind before a storm cell. “James,” I said – “We’re about to get rained on!” He didn’t believe me, but we decided to make our way down the trail anyway. Sure enough, not a couple minutes later, the skies opened. The rain was so thick that I couldn’t see more than a couple feet in front of my face, even though we decided to skirt the forest to take advantage of the trees’ sanctuary. Suddenly, while dredging through the drenched forest, James stopped in front of me. “Did you see that?” he said. “I think that’s it!” I saw a shape fly out from the nearby field and deep into the woods. Could it be? Did we really just run into the very Barn Owls we’d been looking for?

Sure it's cool, but it's not the cool we were looking for!

Of course not. It never works like that. I had to take off my fogged-up glasses to identify the dark shape in front of me, but almost immediately it was clear we’d run into the much more common Barred Owl. Still, it’s not like I see owls all that often, and it was cool to watch this one from under a low pine while it rained all around us. Within fifteen minutes, the rain let up, and we were able to return to the open trail as Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks sang out, taking advantage of the newly cleared skies. When we reached the parking lot, James noticed something hanging out next to our car.

She must've been two feet or more! Biggest non-snapper I ever saw.

Apparently, this large female River Cooter decided the downpour would be a great time to head out and lay some eggs, but she didn’t get too far from the nearby creek before we discovered her. I guess it’s just that egg-laying time of year, but it’s always cool to see turtles outside of water. She’s quite the catch, and an awesome way to end our day even though it was disappointingly devoid of our targets. Still, I’ll take what I can get. Especially if that includes owls, turtles, and frogs!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Herps That Go Bump in the Night

This weekend, I found myself in the unusual situation of being wide-awake after a day of working late, and in my post-workday boredom, I texted Ali Iyoob and we decided to meet at nearby Battle Park to see what nocturnal creatures we could find. The floodlights next to the Forest Amphitheater, which should have been flush with moths, held little more than flying ants and planthoppers. Then, we noticed a large insect buzzing in and out of the shadows, and Ali deftly knocked it to the ground.

Those jaws aren't just for show - Ali got bitten, and he says it hurt worse than a turtle bite!

It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a male Giant Stag Beetle, and boy he didn’t disappoint. Those huge antler-like jaws curved over his giant head, making for a truly imposing figure. For whatever reason, the natural defense of a stag beetle is to stand perfectly still with jaws outstretched, possibly to frighten potential predators – luckily for us, this meant that this immense insect made for quite the photogenic subject. Shortly after having our fill (and foolishly daring each other to place the stag beetle on our face), we found the female individual you see above. Hard to believe they’re the same species, but that’s sexual dimorphism for you!

From the woods, we could hear the droning songs of Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but they’d always stop calling before we got very close. Instead, we followed the incessant twangs of a hidden Green Frog to a small pool formed by the meandering Battle Creek. Using Ali’s iPhone as a flashlight, we found a large frog sitting on a branch jutting out of the water. He quickly nabbed it, but upon viewing it in better light, we found this frog lacked the tell-tale dorsal ridges of a Green Frog.

Would've made for some mighty fine frog legs! Actually scratch that - I've had frog legs. They suck.

Instead, we had a gigantic Bullfrog, almost a foot long with his feet outstretched. As soon as I handled him, the frog fell limp, long legs dangling at his side. Oh no! I thought. We’ve killed it! It had a heart attack from being caught or something! I placed it on the ground, and it flopped over on its stomach before suddenly awaking and bounding off. We caught it again before it got too far, and again the Bullfrog went limp and appeared dead. Turns out, Bullfrogs are well known for playing “possum” when handled, and with this first-hand experience, I’d say they’re pretty convincing!

After our zombie-frog, Ali and I decided to meander the UNC campus, as he’d found an interesting lizard there a week before. We never found it that night, but while checking out the multitude of cockroaches that swarmed over The Pit, we noticed a small shape dashing along a brick wall. Ali whipped out a pillowcase, covered the animal, and maneuvered it inside. I expected to see a House Mouse, a common invasive species of urban areas, so I was surprised when he revealed our prize to be the native White-footed Mouse, a species I’ve only seen once before and not nearly this close up.

I've also heard them called Deer Mice... don't look much like deers to me!

The following night, I found myself in the exact same situation – off of work, wide awake, and bored. So, again I called up Ali, and again we got our nature on. He’d heard of a nearby apartment complex that’s got another invasive species, and one you might not expect. So, we headed off, and almost immediately I spotted the same species of lizard Ali had seen on campus last week. Under a light on the top floor of the apartment, I saw an unmistakable Mediterranean House Gecko.

We thought the pale one was an albino at first - then Ali kept a whole bunch on paper towels, and they all turned white!

Apparently they arrived on shipments of live plants from around the world, and the ones here have taken to scaling the walls of this one apartment complex. Interestingly enough, these geckos can change colors – the ones we found on the white apartment walls were a distinctly pale shade. But checking each and every unit seemed a little sketchy, so we decided to visit the lights that surrounded the fenced-in pool. Turned out to be a good decision, as pretty much every lantern held at least two or three quick little geckos. Because the lanterns were covered in brass, the geckos turned dark to match their surroundings.

Their sticky feet meant that all the ones we caught ended up in one giant gecko-ball by the end of the night.

Because house geckos are highly invasive, we had no qualms about catching as many as possible (we ended up with an impressive sixteen). A small gecko scurried across the brick wall that surrounded the pool, and upon nabbing it we found the inch-long lizard was, in fact, a juvenile. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park when Sam Neill stumbles across those raptor eggshells. We always suspected it of this large, stable, and invasive population, but now we're sure – they're breeding. This realization may upset some people, that an invasive species is just going to become more widespread (after all, their range has expanded from the apartment complex to the pool area). But geckos are kind of awesome, a tropical lizard I honestly never thought I’d see in the wild unless I traveled the world. Turns out, I just had to travel up the road!

All photos in this post thanks to Ali Iyoob and his sweet macro lens!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #5: Eurasian Collared Dove

By James

The Eurasian Collared Dove has become an invasive species throughout large portions of the United States, and is rapidly expanding its range throughout the country. While it isn’t yet affecting the local Mourning Dove populations, there are just so many of them they’re becoming a starling-level pest at bird feeders and county parks. Though I first glimpsed them in southern California, I was lucky enough to see Eurasian Collared Doves in Spain – but let me tell you, they’re just as annoying in their native land.

Even though they’re supposed to be there, no bird would so constantly infuriate me as these birds did. I was lucky enough to get a pretty awesome picture of this shockingly common bird around two weeks into my stay, meaning I had no reason to pursue them and try for a better look. This sort of thing happens often enough. I no longer try to get pictures of cardinals, chickadees or towhees, but I don’t hate this birds. I actually enjoy watching towhees do that odd jump to clear foliage while they look for food. I like seeing chickadees swoop in and grab food off the feeders in my yard, and I still love seeing the crimson flashes of a male cardinal. No, I don’t hate the Eurasian Collared Dove because it’s common. In fact, it’s because of how they fly.

Photo by lostinfog via Flickr.

As the doves came in for landings, they’d spread their tails and wings, soaring and circling, much like a raptor. I always hope that they were Common Kestrels or maybe some small kite. However, once I got a picture and saw one of the abundantly enumerable doves, I found myself muttering curses at the bird under my breath. Thankfully I no longer I have to deal with these raptor imitators, though there presence in coastal North Carolina suggests that within a few years we may be seeing these nuisances throughout the Piedmont. Not looking forward to seeing them again, but hopefully I now have enough experience that, like Roger Daltry and The Who I… won’t get fooled again.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

#53: California Thrasher - Cabrillo Nat'l Monument, CA

It’s the bird that rounds out the “Big 3” – those three guaranteed Californian birds that happen to have the word “California” in their names. I’m sure that if a West Coast birder headed to North Carolina, he’d be happy to pick up Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens. But I’m from the East, so I was ecstatic to find Califonia Towhees, California Quails, and this guy – the California Thrasher.

California Thrashers and I have a love-hate relationship. I’d found several by the time James showed up to San Diego, always getting awesome looks, but of birds skulking around the undergrowth, trying to stay out of view. This behavior, not uncommon among the thrashers, doesn’t lend itself to photography – which is, of course, the only way James can count a bird on his life list. James and I were checking out some Brandt’s Cormorants on a nearby cliff-face when this guy popped out on a dead branch.

He may have been comfortable hanging out on the edge of 100-ft cliffs, but I sure wasn't!

It’s by far the best look of a California Thrasher I got while I was in San Diego, not because it was close-up, but because my line of sight was unimpeded by thick briars and chaparral brush. As far as thrashers go, I’ve only seen this one and the common Brown Thrasher we get out East. But the desert Southwest has a fantastic diversity of these secretive curve-billed birds, and I can’t wait til I get out that way again!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Species Spotlight #19: Cope's Gray Treefrog

I’ve gotta say, I had every intention of writing another edition of The Usual Suspects tonight. But as I was dropping my brother off after our weekly bar trivia night, I heard a familiar sound emanating from the next road over. Cutting through the humid air and din of electrical wires was a distinctly alto guuuuurrrrrr. And again: guuuuuurrrrrrrr

Amazingly enough, I find Cope’s Gray Treefrogs to have quite the distinctive voice. Among frogs, that is. But if you’ve ever been hanging outside sometime around sunset, you might hear an altogether similar sound coming from a pair of birds in the canopy. For whatever reason, the treefrog’s song sounds exactly like the call of a Great Crested Flycatcher. But sometime in the night, the flycatchers will stop calling to each other, and the treefrog chorus will begin.

Check out that crazy patterning in its eyes! I'm not sure why frogs evolved this way, but it's awesome they did.

I’ve never found one of these guys actually calling mid-song, like I did with the Spring Peepers a couple months ago. But every once in a while, on a humid night in summer, I’ll find one clinging to the side of a building under a floodlight, perhaps attracted to the multitude of insects flitting back and forth. The one you see above decided to continue his nightly vigil until midday, and we were able to photograph him. To this day, it remains one of our coolest nature shots, and one we’re not likely to out-do anytime soon.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #4: Eurasian Jackdaw

By James

Like all of the birds I’ve showcased thus far from my Spanish travels, the Eurasian Jackdaw was a very common bird, at least for my first two months in Seville. I first saw them hanging out on one of the countless cathedrals that speckle the city center.

Of course all of those looks meant the birds were 60 to 80 feet away from me, and way up high. Finally, on the same cloudy day I described last week, I found one feeding low in a tree. However, as birds have an annoying tendency to do, it lined itself up perfectly, with a branch going straight through the face.

The jackdaws, along with a host of other birds, seemed to move out as the weather got warm. This stick-through-the-face shot would have to do, but the change in seasons meant many more birds would come my way!  

Friday, June 1, 2012

#52: California Quail - Cabrillo National Monument, CA

Before I went to San Diego, I read as many birding reports as I could find, and they all seemed to say the same thing: California Quails are nearly impossible to miss. So I found it surprising that in the days before James headed out west, I saw neither plume nor feather of these spectacular little fowl. So I began to get desperate.

The day after James arrived, I showed him Cabrillo National Monument, a place that had been productive for me in the past and was rumored to be crawling with coveys of quails. Every time we heard a rustle in the bushes, James yelled out “Quail!” – sometimes in jest, but mostly in hope. After several hours of perusing every minute sound, all I’d managed were several California Towhees, a couple California Thrashers, and a Bewick’s Wren. So when James yelled out “Quail!” once again, I didn’t expect anything different. That’s when a little ball of feathers ran past at a quail’s pace.

There were about five in all, a couple females and a male – a perfect covey of California Quail. But, preferring to hide in the impossibly dense chaparral that surrounded Cabrillo, none of those birds became the quail you see in the picture below. Instead, the three of us, joined by our non-birding brother, decided to drive down to the nearby tide pools. “Tom,” we warned him. “If we see any quail, you have to pull over. Like, immediately.” As we drove down the switchback turns to the rocky shoreline, James looked out one side of the car, and I looked out the other. With his seemingly superhuman eyes, James was the one to call out, for the nth time that day – “Quail!”

I'm glad there's still a part of the country where quail are common - I'm lookin' at you, Bobwhite!

A second covey, this time perched on top of some thorny bramble, with the male wailing out that unrefined call of theirs. James leapt out of this and snapped this shot of him before they went diving down into the undergrowth. I ended up seeing eleven quail that overcast day at Cabrillo, but for whatever reason, I’d only see one more during my time in San Diego – a single male, back-lit and calling in the morning sun. I guess they’re not as common as they’re supposed to be. Or maybe I just lack the quailifications to find them.