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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Long Awaited Lifer

Like I said before, the entire reason James and I headed down to Huntington Beach State Park was to find Roseate Spoonbills, an awesome bird that’s relatively common in the right part of its range. However, this far north the birds only show up during post-breeding dispersal, and by the time we showed up, the birds appeared to have dispersed even farther. We were really looking forward to them, but we had to make do with more common birds like this Tricolored Heron that hunted right off the causeway.

That morning, I watched an American Alligator idling in the water next to some large wooden scaffolding. Perhaps he was eyeing the Snowy Egret that would dart in and out of the rungs, every once in a while picking off a fish or two from the water’s surface. But the egret was skittish, and when the gator got too close it flew to the top row of the scaffolding. Luckily for me, this was about my eye level, and I enjoyed a great look at a common bird.

Without any indication, a huge white thing flew in and scared the Snowy Egret off its perch. And suddenly I was staring face to face with an enormous Wood Stork. I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear how awesome I find Wood Storks, but I think they’re pretty much the coolest bird ever. Just to get the chance to see a whole flock of them was almost enough to ease the sting of missing the spoonbills, and yet here I stood not five feet from one, enjoying every crook and cranny of its knobby head.

Immediately, I phoned James on his cell as he was off watching Common Gallinules and Painted Buntings. This was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen; he had to be there to photograph it! Alas, by the time James showed up, the Wood Stork abandoned his perch in favor of a little mid-morning hunting. To be fair, the bird was still right off the causeway and our views were amazing. But they’ll never match a Wood Stork that I could’ve reached out and touched if I wanted to.

If you watch Wood Storks hunt for a while, you’ll notice some idiosyncrasies about them. For one, most of the time they just stand there with their bills open, hoping something will swim through slowly enough that they can clap them shut. For another, they’ll often walk around with one wing outstretched, presumably shading the water so a hapless fish will take shelter underneath. It looks prehistoric when they do it, like they’re honest to God dinosaurs feeding in a herd during the late Cretaceous. Of course, being birds, they are in fact honest to God dinosaurs, but that’s a story for another time.

At that point, we had a choice – stick around in South Carolina, watching birds we’ve already seen, or make a bee-line for Twin Lakes in North Carolina, where the very Roseate Spoonbills we were looking for had been roosting for the last couple weeks. Not that we needed any help in the decision, but a couple Triangle-area birders let us know that the spoonbills had been seen earlier that morning. In little more than an hour (thanks to some poor directions from the internets), James and I found ourselves looking across the lakes for any signs of birds roosting in trees. And just our luck, they were nowhere to be found.

Disappointed, we tried one last pass at the lakes, and on the way back we noticed a couple white birds perched in a tall pine. They were far off, but they were definitely Wood Storks, and the Roseate Spoonbills were reported to be associating with a Wood Stork flock. As we scoped the far end of the lake, none of the birds turned pink enough for us to pick them out from a distance. I even began to convince myself that a far-off Snowy Egret looked like a spoonbill! I was that delusional. Then, something flew out from the far tree and into the water next to an old flagpole.

There's gotta be one in there somewhere!

I could barely see it with my naked eye, but the view through the scope confirmed it – Roseate Spoonbills, two of them! They fed alongside the storks and egrets like they had no idea that two birders had traveled through hell and high water to watch them. But at this distance, the views weren’t nearly satisfying enough. We drove down a side road, and sure enough there was an empty lot right next to where the spoonbills were hanging out. We raced down the hill, braving poison ivy and stinging nettles until we were right on top of the birds.

I took a second to myself. Sitting there, watching a pair of birds that I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid. The ridiculous looking bills, the muted pink just starting to grow in. I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet there they were, oblivious to my ecstatic state as birds are wont to do. Fearing we may be trespassing, we headed off before five minutes were up. But those five minutes were all I needed to fully enjoy one hell of a lifer.

On the way back to the car I noticed a Broadhead Skink sauntering through the leaf litter. I could have caught it were I fast enough, but I was still in a dreamlike state from seeing those two awesome birds. I don’t think there’s any life bird that I’ve wanted to see as badly as these spoonbills, and now that I’ve seen them, I honestly feel a little aimless. Like the sole purpose of my birding career to this point had been to find Roseate Spoonbills. I guess I’ll just have to find some other bird to hunt down so passionately, but I’m not sure what that bird will be. I suppose Snowy Owls are cool. Yeah. I choose Snowy Owls.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #10: Crested Lark

By James

There are only two kinds of European birds that I never figured out how properly dfferentiate. The first is, of course, the Sylviidae – Europe’s sorry excuse for warblers. Any American who’s birded in Europe has probably experienced the near impossible task of differentiating Reed Warblers from Garden Warblers from Bonelli’s Warblers from the other ten species that look practically identical.

The second type is the subject of this post: the larks. Differentiating Crested Larks and Thekla Larks, the two species present in Andalucia, is akin to differentiating Gray-cheeked Thrush from Bicknell’s. That is, nearly impossible if you aren’t an experienced birder in the area.

Which one is it? The ID is difficult even for European birders.

For me, Crested Larks were infinitely common than Thekla Larks. I had twenty to thirty of the Crested variety, but never had a single one that someone could turn into a Thekla Lark. This isn’t necessarily surprising given the Thekla’s prefer dry plains, but it was still disappointing. Crested Larks, on the other hand seemed to enjoy just about any habitat.

I frequently saw them in grassy plains, patches of dry dirt, and even along the well-traveled path that runs alongside the Guadalquivir River, which is were I got my best picture of the lark. It’s a fairly disappointing shot for such a common bird. Oh well. I guess I’ll have to go back at some point.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Night of the Spadefoots

Well, I was gonna tell you about some awesome birds I found this past weekend, but I’ve had this one on the backburner for too long and it’s a tale I’ve got to tell. It all started that time Ali, Mark and I went down to Sandhills NWR in South Carolina, when we got the third degree from some Fish and Wildlife official and found a fledgling Common Nighthawk on the way out. Before we reached the exit, the skies opened up and rain poured from on high. Torrents sliced through the night so thick you couldn’t see in front of you, and Mark had to pull over lest we crash into something rather more solid than ourselves. That’s when the fun began.

Once the rains relented to a drivable level, we started cruising rural roads outside of Wildlife Refuge boundaries. From the roadsides, scores of frogs and toads began hopping into our path – mostly Southern Toads, but occasionally something more interesting. We found a Green Frog once, far away from any water, and this nice Southern Leopard Frog ended up being extremely photogenic.

I have bad luck catching Leopard Frogs - they're so slippery!

Ali ended up being our spotter, which is good because the kid has eyes like a hawk. He was identifying frogs to species before he even got out of the car! But nobody needed help with this behemoth. A large Bullfrog, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen, was just hanging out on the side of the road, oblivious to the cars passing close by. He’s got some major scarring around his face – I’m not sure if that’s the result of sparring with another frog or if he somehow survived a close encounter with a water snake. But for whatever reason, this gnarly-looking guy remains the only Bullfrog I’ve ever had the pleasure of photographing.

Not as big as the one Ali and I found a week or two earlier, but still pretty huge!

With all the Southern Toads we were seeing, even I got pretty good at picking them out at forty miles per hour. So I found it pretty odd when Ali excitedly yelled “Stop the car!” and jumped out for what appeared to be nothing special. Then he ran back in with something altogether different, sucking in air and swelling like a balloon until his legs stuck out useless at his sides. To this day, it remains the coolest herp I’ve ever seen, something you can only find on summer nights when it rains enough to convince them to mate. In my hand, I was holding an Eastern Spadefoot.

The males were a lot more colorful, with a kind of purple tint to them.

That night, the Spadefoots were out in force. We ended up finding eight or nine, and each time they’d inflate themselves as some kind of defense mechanism. I expected them to be small, and while the males were pretty modestly-sized, some of the big females we found were huge – one was almost four inches long! I found it surprisingly difficult to hold them, because they’d try to dig down using their namesake spades which actually hurts a bit when you’re being kicked by a big frog. I’ll never forget that night – by far the best roadcruising we ever had.

The big females, on the other hand, had a striking brown-and-yellow pattern to them.

We actually kept a bunch of the frogs overnight in a small Styrofoam cooler filled with water so that we could photograph them the next day. We set up shop next to a random pond which worked out well for me – this way, I could look for some new kinds of fish while Mark and Ali photographed to their heart’s content. Immediately, I pulled up something rather different than the Eastern Mosquitofish I’d been finding all day. After a bit of research, Ali determined that this guy was a Lined Topminnow, and its pretty cool that I can finally put names to some of the random fish that I’ve been seeing.

We saw a couple of bass swimming amongst the schools of fish, but we just couldn't seem to catch them.

We released the frogs and headed back towards home. That’s when we realized that we were pretty close to Pinehurst No. 2, which if you didn’t know is the golf course where all the rich people play until they get kicked out when the US Open rolls around. In any case, I’d heard it was a great place to find Fox Squirrels, but since I haven’t had any luck photographing these guys, I wasn’t expected we’d find any. But sure enough, right on the side of the road and totally ignored by golfers with their sweatshirts tied around their necks, this Fox Squirrel chowed down on mushrooms.

Mmm... mushrooms...

Now feeling a sense of completion, we made good on our plan to return to the Triangle. Since I had to wait a little while for my ride home, I decided to photograph one of the many Mediterranean House Geckos Ali and I caught that one random night. He’s been keeping them to see if he can get them to breed. No success that I know of, but at least they’re still super chill after a couple weeks in captivity.

Just chilling and showing off his amazing wall-climbing skills. No big deal.

I couldn’t have asked for anything more. With amazing herps, great mammals, and even a couple of fish, this lastest trip down to the Sandhills was a fantastic one that I’ll never forget. Since then, I’ve gotten distracted by birds again, so look forward to a super awesome final conclusion to our Huntington Beach trip sometime next week!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

One of the most important decisions you can make while birding is which way to go. And I’m not talking about should you take 40 or 95, or the 17 or the Grissom Parkway. More importantly, should you take a right or left at the trailhead? Should you finish the loop or double back? These decisions can alter the very course of a birding adventure. That day, James and I made two different decisions.

I decided to camp out at the Huntington Beach causeway, a legendary place that had tons of birds the day before. I’d hoped that some of the oft-reported Roseate Spoonbills would fly in, but it appears they left several days before we arrived. For the moment, I would have to be content with close looks at a pair of Osprey as they gracefully dove for fish over the shallow pond.

Honestly he got really close, but he was flying too fast for a good picture.

James, on the other hand, chose to visit the Atalaya trail, which runs through forests and marshes before terminating at an old homestead. The only problem with this trail is that, as we’d found the day before, there aren’t a whole lot of vantage points for viewing the marsh. And any time you can find a break in the foliage, there are giant Golden Silk Orb Weavers, large spiders that build impressive webs. The whole thing is pretty precarious, but apparently it can work out. James ended up getting great views of this Common Gallinule bathing in the duckweed. It’s a lifer for him, as the Common Moorhens he found in Spain were recently split – I’m still not quite sure why, the two birds look fairly identical to me!

Just sayin', non-Gallinula species shouldn't be called gallinules... I'm lookin' at you, Porphyrio martinica.

Next, James decided to visit the feeders by the nature center to get better looks at the multitude of Painted Buntings. Turns out, he didn’t have to go very far – just a short ways down Atalaya, a nice male landed right at his feet! Apparently they do a lot of Painted Bunting banding at Huntington Beach State Park, because every male we saw sported colorful ankle jewelry denoting his identity. James didn’t get to enjoy the bird as long as he’d have liked to, because as seems to happen all too often, a jogger ran through and flushed the bird. Damn joggers…

How dare he not stop and gaze in wonderment at such a bird? But bro, he totally did a 7:20 mile!

The boardwalk that runs north of the nature center meanders through the nearby salt marsh. On Saturday, a huge flock of White Ibis lined the sides, but once we showed up to photograph them, a couple of tourists bustled through and flushed them. The same happened to a couple of Green Herons that were chilling on the tall railings. James visited that morning at an hour too early for most people, and one of the Green Herons didn’t mind just one person standing around to take its picture.

Around here, Green Herons are one of the more skittish birds you can find. But at HBSP, they don't give a damn!

Back at the causeway, the Wood Storks started streaming in, and some landed much closer than they had on Saturday. Just off the viewing platform, I noticed a school of fish jumping out of the water close by. I wondered if one of the many gators decided to take his chance with smaller prey when I got my answer – not a gator, but a nice Anhinga rose out of the water, with its breakfast impaled on its beak.

Unbeknownst to most nature enthusiasts, but knownst to us, Anhingas have a hilarious derp-face.

I’ve never seen Anhingas this close up before, so watching it hunt and feed at point-blank range was all the more exciting. Especially when the bird gets quite animated doing so – to prevent the fish’s dorsal spines from getting stuck in its throat, the Anhinga has to do a juggling act in order to swallow it, tossing the fish in the air until it points the right direction. As if the Anhingas didn’t look like they had a long enough neck already!

Crazily enough, that crooked neck they have is actually the shape of their neck vertebrae.

After a hard morning’s fishing, the Anhinga awkwardly waddled up onto a nearby island and turned its back towards the sun, drying its feathers. Unlike most other water-going birds, Anhingas lack oil glands with which to waterproof their feathers, so after swimming, it gets just as wet as you or I. Not that I mind this brief evolutionary shortcoming – it just means that Anhingas get quite photogenic!

Would you just take the picture already? It's only going to be sitting there for the next hour and a half!

At this point, a really cool bird flew up next to me, so close I could have touched it. I called James, but he was of course off doing his own thing, and by the time he got there the bird flew back to the water. And then we made the decision to go find a wholly different bird. But these are all stories for another day. Like Friday, perhaps? Check back then for the exciting conclusion of our Huntington Beach adventure!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Little Differences

Man, it's been a while, but after dealing with the cable company for a while, we're back and we finally have internets again! In the meantime, James and I visited the venerable Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Read below to find out how it went!

When you travel just one state over, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the state you’re in and the state you left. Sure the landscape is pretty much the same, and yes the people still talk with the same southern drawl. And of course you can’t exit the highway without there being a Bojangles’ within spitting distance. But then the skyline starts becomes dotted with palm trees, there’s an indoor shooting range next to a cabaret, and you realize you just passed a Planet Hollywood. Sure enough, you’re in South Carolina.

Not to mention, the nature is slightly different too. As soon as I stepped out of the car at Huntington Beach State Park, I noticed a nasally buzzing coming from the nearby trees. My suspicions were confirmed when we found this small brown cicada being serenaded by a Black Widow, a different species than the big green buzzers we have in the Piedmont. The windows of the nearby restrooms were dotted with Green Treefrogs, not the Grays I’m used to up north. And as soon as we stepped out onto the causeway, James and I noticed a horde of American Alligators basking upon temporary islands.

Living inland, I don’t get to enjoy these ancient looking reptiles nearly as much as I should. The ‘gators on Mullet Pond ran the size gamut – we saw young ‘uns just three feet long and still bearing their juvenile striping; and we saw giants, including one that we estimated to be eight feet long, at least! But most rested somewhere in the middle, and as we watched him, this six-footer sidled up towards the shore, perhaps eyeing a Snowy Egret hunting from a nearby dock.

Slowly but surely, birds began to fly into Mullet Pond as the tide began to rise. A steady stream of Wood Storks accumulated against the far shore until they numbered nearly eighty individuals. Around here, the only time I get to see Wood Storks is during post-breeding dispersal, so it was nice to see them so close up.

More birds flew in, some common ones like Least Sandpipers and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. But among them we spotted some Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, plus a fantastic-looking Reddish Egret that decided to land and dance around for us about a hundred yards out. But most surprising were a trio of American Avocets that flew in - not surprising that they were avocets, but rather that they retained the bay-colored head of breeding individuals. It's only the second time I've seen birds in this plumage, the first being out in California. I've got to say, they're one of my favorite shorebirds.

All around us, I could see White Ibises flying and feeding among the myriad of birds along the causeway. It’s always a treat to see them, even though they’re a mainstay of any coastal Carolina adventure. But while I watched them pick at old clusters of oysters in the low tide, I noticed a large flock of altogether darker birds – Glossy Ibis, the much more uncommon of the two species. They’re not particularly difficult to find around here during the summer, and indeed I found several flocks totaling near a hundred individuals. But for some reason this is a bird that I’ve only ever found in South Carolina, never in my home state. Sometimes, the little differences work against you.

We decided to sidetrack and check out the bird feeders that lined the nearby Nature Center. Although I was expecting them because I’d heard their song pretty much everywhere I turned, I was surprised at the sheer number of Painted Buntings that visited the feeders. Sure, I expected one or two at any given time, but I once had seven in one binocular-view! And not just females and juvenile either, but nice males like this one that sat up in a bush for James to photograph.

The rest of the feeder residents weren’t nearly as colorful. There were Northern Cardinals of all sexes and ages, a pair of Brown Thrashers, and a couple young Mourning Doves. But there was a bird I enjoyed even more than the Painted Buntings – a male Eastern Towhee. Now, towhees are regular feeder visitors in my part of the country, but down in South Carolina, they get a totally different subspecies from us, and one I’ve wanted to see for a long time. They call it Pipilo erythrophthalamus rileyi, and it differs from your standard towhee in one distinct way – rather than being red, the eyes of P. e. rileyi are bright white, a field mark that can be seen even from a distance. In any case, it’s a lifer subspecies for me, if that’s even a thing!

After the feeders, James and I decided to hit the beach to see what we could find. Unfortunately, the beach seemed to be dotted with umbrellas and surf-fishing poles – not birds. All we could muster were a couple Willets and a small flock of Sanderling, so instead we occupied our time my checking out the many crabs of Huntington Beach. We found one big ol’ Ghost Crab, which I would have captured were it not that it pinched me in a botched attempt (I’m fine, by the way; barely punctured the skin). But far more interesting was this Horseshoe Crab we found lounging in the ebbing tide. I’ve found these guys before, but never alive, which this guy certainly was – I mean, he almost stabbed me with his tail when I tried to pick him up!

Once we reached the fabled jetty (which is, by the way, a pain in the ass to walk out to), we found a whole lot of… nothing. Not a single bird to reward us for our effort. Now convinced we’d made the journey in vain, we promptly turned around and headed back. James noticed a small flock of terns and Black-bellied Plovers by a lagoon in a protected zone just off the beach. We couldn’t venture closer, but my scope aided in identification – Royal, Sandwich, and Common Terns made up the bulk of the flock, and a pair of Wilson’s Plovers ran around nearby. But then a bird flew in that neither of us needed a scope to identify.

With just a hint of its future plumage starting to show in its face, this stunning Black Tern shown out against a flock of mostly white birds. Another flew in, this one even blacker than the last, and the first I’ve ever seen anywhere close to breeding plumage. It seems a little early for these guys to be heading down the coast, but then again it is nearly August. Shorebird migrants should be hitting the inland reservoirs in a couple of weeks, but thankfully it’s already begun on the South Carolina coast. Any earlier and we would have been skunked, but out here we’re right on time. It’s those little differences that make a trip like this worth it.

That's not even the half of it! Check back on Wednesday to find out how day two of our South Carolina adventure turned out!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #9: Rose-ringed Parakeet

By James

::ROBERT'S NOTE:: Man, it's been awhile since I've posted anything... I've got a lack of Internets at the moment, what can I say. Still, I can't deny James a chance to post his Spanish bird of the week, so here it is!

Non-native species constantly cause fits for birders, especially those who are listers. European Starlings, European Collared-Doves and House Sparrow are all native to Eurasia, but through various means they have made their way across the pond and are now (unfortunately) well-established and recognized by the American Ornithologists Union as countable species.

Classifications like these take most of the ambiguity out of species counting, but what does one do with a less-established introduced population? It is generally accepted that released pets are not countable, or else I would have Blue-crowned Parakeet on my list, but can one count the small flocks of Mitered Parakeets that Robert and I saw flying over San Diego several years ago?

Not countable by anybody... but still awesome to see in urban Seville!

Thankfully the Rose-ringed Parakeets that live in Seville have a well-established population, and I have no qualms about counting this bird. These parakeets were easy to find in the many urban parks, but I also found them along the river and in the expansive Parque Alamillo. While I found them everywhere, the best place to get them was within the magnificent Parque Maria Luisa. While walking around it was unusual to not hear these loud squawking birds, and without to much effort I would often see 20 to 30 in a single visit.

They quickly became the equivalent of a Northern Cardinal to me, where I would hear them, know they what they were, and not pay them any attention, something I never thought could happen with a bird as magnificent as the Rose-ringed Parakeet

The knowledge that they were not a native species took away some of the enjoyment of seeing them, but I still loved seeing these bright green parakeets flying from tree to tree in urban Spain

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #8: Great Tit

As Robert has discussed many times, using playback to get birds out into the open and show off a little bit is a trick we have used many times. While some claim that it disturbs the birds and others claim it cheapens birding, nobody can dispute that it can net you some really incredible views. Just look at the Indigo Bunting or Prairie Warbler that graces our banner!

However, playback only works when you have the ability to identify birds by their call. I struggle with this in the States, and in Spain I was pretty much helpless. While I would listen for calls, I rarely knew what I was hearing, I only knew what I species I had previously heard, and would listen for a strange or a new sound. One of the few songs I eventually became familiar with was that of the Great Tit.

This common, chickadee-esque bird was common in rural parks and open spaces, but it was always a treat to see. I’d seen the birds countless times, but they would always hop around too quickly or stay out of the light, making it difficult for me to get a picture. That is, until one morning when I heard the high-pitched call of the Great Tit and elected to try my luck with a little playback.

The bird immediately responded and while still more jumpy than I’d like, it eventually moved in close giving me the chance for a great picture. Oh, and if anybody wants to debate the pros/cons of using playback like this, look for an essay on the subject in the near future!