Category Archives: Birds

More on the Rio Grande Valley–These Are A Few of My Favorite Birds

TX: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher--Success~!

“How many Lifers?”  This is the question I was asked when I returned from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, my first trip ever to Texas. A Life Bird, for any non-birder reading this blog, is a bird that you have seen for the first time. And, seen well, no quick fly by or back view. Life Birds are a source of pride and status in the birding world. A subset of Life Birds is ABA Birds, birds you’ve seen in the North American geographical area accepted by the American Birding Association. But, when my friends ask me, “How many Lifers did you get in Texas?,” my answer is, “I haven’t counted yet. All I know is, I saw some perfectly marvelous birds in a perfectly marvelous state near the perfectly marvelous Rio Grande.”
Here are some of those birds.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tyrannus forficatus
TX: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Smells a Dragonfly

I was driving down a road south of Laguna Atascoa NWR on a late afternoon, noting to myself how long the tails of the mockingbirds were in Texas, when it hit me. “Those are not mockingbirds!” I shouted at myself in my head, pulling over to the side of the road. Yup, it was row upon row of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. It’s funny what the brain will tell you when your eyes are seeing something else. It was a busy road, and I was scared that if I put one foot out of the car I would flush all the Scissor-taileds as well as the Couch’s Kingbirds and Loggerhead Shrikes that were also perched intermittently down the wires. So, I photographed the birds from my car. I’ve seen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in Florida and even in New Jersey, but this was the first time that I’ve watched those tails in action. They really do look like scissors opening and closing when the bird flies, especially if it’s chasing, as this one is, a yummy dragonfly.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Amazilia yucatanensis
TX: Buff-bellied Hummer

This is the “default” hummingbird in the the Rio Grande Valley, and I saw one or two every day, wherever there were feeders or flowers. I was surprised that the hummers were still there in November. Texas is the only place where they breed in the United States. I photographed this hummer at Hugh Ramsey Park, on the outskirts of Harlingen, a very good site for Texas specialties.

Olive Sparrow, Arremonops rufivirgatusTX: Olive Sparrow

This is a rather plain looking and very sweet sparrow that is one of Texas’s “specialties,” a neotropical species that belongs in Mexico and other countries of Central America and which has also made a home in the Rio Grande Valley. It doesn’t migrate and can be found in thickets and undergrowth. I’m not sure if this was a Life Bird or an ABA Bird for me, I need to check my Costa Rica list. I was very happy to see it on the Upper Rio Grande Field Trip led by Jeffrey Gordon (I believe it was leader Ben Lizdas who coaxed them out into the open) and the next day in Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen, where this photo was taken. I actually succeeded in drawing out this bird for another birder with a tiny bit of playback. And, then we realized there were two of them. And three. Maybe four! It is a common bird throughout the Valley, but not always easy to see because it loves those thickets.

Green Kingfisher, Chloroceryle americana
TX: Green Kingfisher, Female

This small kingfisher can be hard to spot, it just sits very quietly on a branch near the water. And then, it will quickly fly out, over your head, and to another pond out of your camera’s reach! Well, this was my experience when I saw the bird till I got to Sabal Palms. This is a female. The male was seen later in the trip:
TX: Green Kingfisher, Male

Pyrrhuloxia, Cardinalis sinuatus

Texas: Pyrrhuloxia, female, Pondering Lunch

I’ve wanted to see a Pyrrhuloxia ever since my friend Marylee told me about them. Pyrrhuloxia is a bird that looks like a Northern Cardinal, but isn’t, with a name that is much harder to spell. (I ended up just calling it Pyrrs and Lox.)  I saw a male and a female at the feeders at Falcon State Park; this one is the female. The male had a stylish red-gray coloring, but would not deign to pose. Pyrrhuloxia is another of the several Life Birds I saw on my first festival trip, the Upper Rio Grande, definitely one of the highlights of the week.

Green Parakeet, Aratinga holochlora
TX: Green Parakeets in Downtown Harlingen

At the end of every festival birding day, before partaking of the Kiskadee Kordial, birders fanned throughout Harlingen looking for parrots coming home to roost. I was told to go to the Holiday Inn, in the middle of Harlingen, for Green Parakeets. This is an established population in the Rio Grande Valley, and a parrot species considered countable by the ABA. At 5pm on the dot, about 50 squawking Green Parakeets flew over the Holiday Inn and landed on wires across the road, cuddling and chuckling and licking drops of water from a leaking pipe on the roof of a wireless phone company.  Fifteen minutes of fun, and then they were off again!

Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus 

RGVBF: Roadrunner in a Tree

Roadrunners are the birds that cartoons are made of (beep beep!), and us Easterners can’t get enough of them. I had a quick view of one on my SoCal trip, and saw this quirky beauty on the road, drinking in warmth on this tree. The bus driver obligingly pulled over and inched up and back as all 48 birders tried to photograph the bird through the windows. What I like about this photo is that it shows off the blue around the eye, which reminds me of Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and the fact that Roadrunners, like Anis (see below) are members of the Cuckoo family.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium brasilianum

TX: Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

The one sure place to find Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the Rio Grande Valley is at the King Ranch. The RGVBF field trip took us to the Norias division of the Ranch, which is huge, 825,000 acres, and scattered in different parcels throughout southern Texas. We spent the early morning walking a field in search of Sprague’s Pipit (we found them, Life Bird!), and then searched for the owl. I’ve read blogs which describe finding this tiny owl very easily, but for some reason it took over an hour for our group to finally see him, way back in the live oak. (Oh, I see elsewhere that it is a lot easier to find in spring. Good to know.)

I was one of the few people in the group who saw the owl posed right in front of us for one minute, and gave up my most excellent photo op so I could try to get other birders on it. Of course the owl quickly flew into the owl fourth dimension, and I’ve been wondering if my fruitless altruism was stupid or the birder thing to do ever since. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are common in Central and South America, where I’ve seen them numerous times. The best part of these owls is that they have large black spots on the back of their head that look like eyes.  This is a very fuzzy photo, but it gives you the general idea. Yes, back of head.


White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Texas: White Pelicans Over the King Ranch

Another thrill while birding the King Ranch was looking up at one point and seeing a sky filled with White Pelicans.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

Santa Ana NWR, TX: Groove-billed Ani

Anis are wonderfully primitive looking birds usually seen in Central and South America, in farm fields and pastures in small family groups. This is where I’ve seen them during my travels. (I’ve also seen Smooth-billed Anis in Florida, but they’re hard to find there these days.) Anis are good birds to know about if you do crossword puzzles.  There are Smooth-billed Anis and Groove-billed Anis, and they look alike, only the Groove-billed Anis have more grooves in their huge bills.  Southern Texas is the only place where you can reliably find Groove-billed Anis in the U.S., but this is usually during the summer, so people got very excited when a group of these birds was sighted at the Santa Ana NWR.

My field trip on Friday missed the Anis, so my first stop on November 11th, a post-festival day and my last day in Texas, was Santa Ana NWR. I was happy to bump into Irene and Saul Grysman there, birding friends from Queens who had also attended the festival. They were also looking for the Anis, and we planned to meet up again at Willow Lake, where they had been seen in the past few days, about a 15-minute walk. I needed to do a rest room stop and sign in at the Visitor’s Center. (There was no entrance fee because it was Veteran’s Day, but the refuge still asked that you sign in and get a yellow wristband. This is what happens when you’re near the border.)

When I emerged from the ladies’ room, I was startled to see Irene gesturing to me from an area just beyond the feeders that were just beyond the Visitor’s Center. A small group of birders had their bins trained on something. I really did not think it would be the Anis. First of all, the Anis had pretty much only been seen at Willow Lake. Second, I was so discouraged from Friday’s experience, I couldn’t believe I could be so lucky to see the birds first thing in the morning. I was envisioning spending the whole day looking for the darned cuckoos (yes, Anis are members of the cuckoo family). Welcome disappointment! Irene, Saul, and their guide, Bob Behrstock, had found the group of six  Groove-billed Anis right there, a half-minute walk from the entrance. They were happily feeding in a group of large bushes, or small trees, sometimes totally disappearing in the foliage.

Rose-throated Becard, Pachyramphus aglaiae

Santa Ana NWR: Rose-throated Becard

There are some birds that just talk to your inner core. Rose-throated Becard is one of those birds for me. I hear the name and I immediately flash back to my first birding travel adventure in 2003, a Field Guides trip to southeast Arizona. (I feel sad that Field Guides no longer offers this particular trip, where you stayed at the Crown C Ranch in Sonoita and did day trips. It worked very well for me as a beginning birder and for older, more experienced birders who didn’t want the stress of traveling to different motels every few days.)

Rose-throated Becards had nested earlier in the season across from the famous Patagonia rest stop, and the word was that the birds were still there, though the nest had either been abandoned or disturbed, I don’t remember which. I do remember that the nest was behind a fence, and that there was a lot of discussion about the fence, and that one of the experienced birders on the trip really really wanted to see the Becard. My first encounter with a dedicated lister! So, we spent a lot of time at this spot during the week. At one point, I saw leaves move. I thought I saw a bit of a bird. I was so excited! For years I had Rose-throated Becard on my life list till common sense prevailed and I took it off till I could put it back on again after seeing, really seeing, the bird in Costa Rica.

But, even now, I hear Rose-throated Becard and I get all trembly and excited inside, connecting back to that feeling of new discovery and listing mania in Arizona. So, when Saul Grysman flagged me down as I was leaving Santa Ana NWR and told me that he and Bob Behrstock had just seen a Rose-throated Becard in the parking lot, about 36 feet from where I had been sitting in my car, I did an inner squee and jumped out. The Becard had flown almost immediately from this first sighting. I searched and left and returned. It was in the picnic area. It might have returned to the parking lot. I talked to local birders about previous Becards at Santa Ana. We were in the middle of observing a Common Green Darner eating a Black Saddlebags (or vice versa, it was really hard to tell), when word came that an enterprising birder had re-re-located it on the tiny dead-end path off the picnic area. I ran. I got into the required position to see the Becard, ensconced high up in a tree at the end of the dead-end path. I cooed and squeed and my heart leaped up and down. The birders waiting in line to stand in the required position were patient, but I could sense eyebrows being raised. So, I quickly took the above photo and gave up my spot. My trip to Texas was complete.



Birding the Rio Grande Valley–Finally!

RGVBF: Green Jay in all Its Colors

Green Jay, Cyanocorax yncas

I needed to retire to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. It takes place in November, which in the academic world is the busy season, the time when students are researching papers and taking mid-terms. The first thing I did when I retired this summer was look up the dates of the RGVBF. And, then the June date when registration opens. Which was a good thing, because I wasn’t able to get to a computer till three hours after the opening bell, and several field trips were already maxed out!

So, on Monday, November 4th, 2013, one day after the completion of the New York Birders Conference (a project I had been working on for 9 months), I boarded a plane for Harlingen. Texas. Visions of life birds and ABA birds and neotropical butterflies and seeing new and previously-only-known-through-the-Internet friends were dancing through my head. I didn’t want to make a list of target birds, I didn’t want to tempt fate, but I couldn’t help dreaming of Green Jays and Red-bordered Pixies. (I photographed the Green Jay above two days later at a feeder at Falcon State Park. Alas, the Pixies were elusive, a reason to return.)

Texas: Common Mestra

Common Mestra at Frontera Audubon

I always love the first day I bird a new place, and was very happy I had arrived a day before the festival started so I could get the feel of the lower Rio Grande Valley at my own pace. I decided to start with a visit to Frontera Audubon, located in Weslaco, where a Golden-crowned Warbler had been seen a few days earlier. Golden-crowned Warblers are usually seen in Central and South America and I have seen this bird in Costa Rica. But, not the United States! So, this would be a nice addition to my ABA list. The bird was not seen that Tuesday, despite the efforts of many birders, and although I was disappointed, I was too busy taking in all the other wonderful wildlife there to not be wonderfully happy. Butterflies were everywhere! Clouds of Queens and Phaon Crescents and Common Mestras.  I got my first Texas life bird immediately in the parking lot: Plain Chachalaca!


Plain Chachalaca, Ortalis vetula

On the Thicket Trail, I heard and then saw Great Kiskadee, an ABA bird.

Texas: Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus,

And then, sitting by the creek near the Visitor’s Center, I saw my 600th ABA bird, Baeolophus atricristatus, Black-crested Titmouse!


Black-crested Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

I would see many Black-crested Titmice during the next few days, but none as special as this small, feisty but camera-shy bird.  I know it’s just listing, and listing is not the same as really knowing about the bird and its behavior and taxonomy and all the other things we should know about a bird as birders, but I was very excited about this milestone. And, even better, when I put the news on Facebook, my friends were excited with me! It’s always nice to know that you’re not totally crazy. Or, that there are other crazy people who value the same crazy things you do.

I also photographed damselflies and dragonflies, though the numbers were far less than the butterflies. There are several red dragonfly species in southern Texas, including Carmine Skimmer, a Life Ode. I didn’t realize till I got home and looked at my photographs that this one has a crumpled wing, poor thing. It didn’t seem to bother him, but then again, I didn’t see him fly very far. (Carmine Skimmers are much rosier, with a more purple-ish thorax, than this photo indicates. An example of how sun and angle can influence dragonfly photography.)

Texas: Carmine Skipper

Carmine Skimmer, Orthemis discolor

This damselfly is a Kiowa Dancer, another Life Ode. The key to identification is the short-long short-long patterning on the abdomen.

TX: Kiowa Dancer

Kiowa Dancer, Argia immunda

I took one more walk down the Thicket path on a final fruitless search for the Golden-crowned Warbler. Fewer birds were in sight and the wonderful, promising bird sound had quieted. I did see a White-tipped Dove bathing, another ABA bird. Two small Inca Doves were nestled nearby and scurried into the underbrush as I pointed my camera at them.

Texas: White-tipped Dove Bathing 2

White-tipped Dove, Leptotila verreauxi

It was time to bird another new place. Since I had missed out on the Golden-crowned Warbler, I headed for the University of Texas, PanAm campus, about 20 minutes away, where a Painted Redstart had been seen. Another neotropical warbler, I hadn’t seen a Painted Redstart since my trip to Arizona at the beginning of my birding “career”. The campus was not far away, but it took me almost two hours to realize that the courtyard where I was looking for the warbler was the Wrong Place. Really, how many courtyards “north of the Science Building” could there be? At least two.

Texas: Painted Redstart 1

Painted Redstart, Myioborus pictus

I walked around the RIGHT courtyard a bit frantically. I was parked at a meter in the campus parking lot, and time was running out. Time was out. I took one last look at the tree next to me. “Oh! There you are, oh lovely tiny little bird. Thank you for showing yourself. I have one minute in which to take your photo.” Good thing I did, because after I  ran back to the meter, put in more money and returned, the courtyard full of students doing a botony project, no warbler in sight. Birding is all in the timing.

Texas: Painted Redstart 2

Painted Redstart, Myioborus pictus

Of course, the Bird of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was the Amazon Kingfisher, found by Jeff Bouton on November 9th, off of Route 100, near San Benito. Second record of this bird in the United State (assuming it will be approved by the records committee, which seems likely). News of the Big Find trickled in to my field trip at the Santa Ana NWR, about an hour’s drive away, making me very anxious and fidgity. Seeing this lovely Ringed Kingfisher  did not alleviate the Amazon Kingfisher heebie jeebies.


Ringed Kingfisher, Megaceryle torquata

The field trip returned at noon, but my first foray out to TX-100 came up dry, the bird had disappeared. And, I needed to return to Harlingen for my photo workshop. At this point, it felt like every birder and random person at the festival had seen it but me! And, let me add that this would not be a life bird, I had seen Amazon Kingfisher in Ecuador. I wanted to be a part of the excitement, cheering and laughing and slapping hands.

Fast forward to 4:30pm. I approach the “Amazon Kingfisher spot” a second time and see police cars, red lights spinning. “Damn,” I think, “They’re making us move our cars. Why oh why???”  Ha! I was so wrong! The local police were not making birders move on from the twitch. They were HELPING birders stay safe. What a concept! I parked right in front of one of the helpful policemen, jumped out of my car, and birding friends Doug Gochfeld,and David LaPuma put me in front of a scope pointed right on the Amazon Kingfisher. “Bam!”, as Doug said.  ABA Bird, rarity encounter, target achieved! I had become a part of this giant twitch that enveloped the 900 birders and vendors of the festival for the next few days. (And, in fact, the kingfisher is still being seen as I write this on November 23rd.)

Texas: Amazon Kingfisher 2

Amazon Kingfisher, Chloroceryle amazona

The Amazon Kingfisher was a good ways down the resca when I first saw it. We had fun watching it fly out for a snack and returning to the north side of the resca, perching on various snags, sometimes a little out of sight, but always flying back out into view. Finally, as the light was beginning to fade, the bird flew right towards us and perched for a nanosecond on this snag right in front of me. I got off one photo before it flew back a bit and then over our heads! About a hundred birders crossed TX-100, the police stopping traffic. The kingfisher eventually settled himself in a spot only visible from a small area on the edge of the road, and us birders watched happily as new birders, including a guy named David Sibley, approached and viewed the bird from the two scopes placed in that spot. This is part of the fun of a twitch. Sharing the wealth, bestowing the viewing.

I loved birding and observing nature in the Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was the perfect way in which to get my first taste of Texas.  Great birds, great butterflies, great people. I will be writing more about my adventures in Texas soon.

The Wonders of Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island: Island Fox
We didn’t originally plan to visit Santa Cruz Island. We–my friend Ian and I– decided that it would not work out. Our time in Southern California being limited, we wanted to squeeze as many life and Western birds out of each day as was possible, and with the boat leaving Ventura Harbor at 9am and not returning till dusk, it seemed to us that this would mean spending an awful lot of time on an island with limited birding opportunities. Of course, there was the almost certain opportunity of seeing the island’s bird star, the endemic Island Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma insularis . But, this one Life Bird seemed small potatoes compared to a pelagic trip, an all-day birding trip at sea, promising oodles of sea birds we would never see on land.


Fate being what it is, the pelagic trip out of Santa Barbara was cancelled due to lack of participation (hey, Santa Barbara birders! what’s the deal with that?), and luckily I was able to get tickets on the Island Packers boat to Santa Cruz Island (above) for the same day, Saturday, September 21st, right before they declared the trip full.  Yes, apparently people would rather be on a 1.5-hour boat ride to a pretty island where they can hike and picnic than on a 9-hour boat ride where they might see jaegers and shearwaters and….might not.

Ventura Harbor: Brown Pelican

It was fun waiting to get on the boat at Ventura Harbor and observing our fellow passengers, who included a boy scout troupe in a mix of scout and play garb, a local Nature Conservancy major donors group wearing name tags and carrying field guides, and some very healthy, athletic twenty-somethings, carrying guitars and storing kayaks in the boat’s hold. This Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, impassively watched too, comfortably settled right below the walkway to the boat, and wearing the last vestiges of breeding plumage. (California Brown Pelican,P. o. californicus, I’ve discovered, is more colorful in breeding plumage than our own Eastern Brown Pelican.)

The fun started on the way out of Ventura Harbor, passing these Sea Lions on one channel marker, and, very quickly, the resident rarity, a Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), on channel marker 3. The photo below was taken a week later, from Marina Park. The Brown Booby is the bird on the right. Apparently, Blue-footed Boobies were also being seen on the Ventura Harbor breakwater, but we didn’t see them that day. We did see many Blue-footed Boobies at other locations on our trip.

Island Packers boats sail to Santa Cruz Island daily May through September (and, it looks like,from their web page, October too). I was surprised that the boat ride was 1.5 to 2 hours long, but the time goes quickly. Unless you’re like me and get slightly seasick even if you’ve taken anti-seasickness medicine. Ian and I were entertained by a pod of dolphins and periodically tried to identify seabirds and gulls. At one point, we were surrounded by acrobatic Black-vented Shearwaters, a life bird for Ian.  Other people who have taken this boat ride have seen whales and Pink-footed Shearwaters (what I was hoping for). But, the goal of the boat is to reach the island, so there is little time for pausing to identify and observe sea life.

Here’s a map of the island, from the Island Packers web site. They, in turn, seem to have borrowed it from the U.S. National Park Service.


Santa Cruz Island is owned by the U.S. National Park Service (24%) and a group of nonprofits–The Nature Conservancy, the University of California Field Station, and the Santa Cruz Island Foundation (76%). It has a complicated history, which is nicely encapsulated by Wikipedia (and maybe by the National Park Service, but I cannot access that website today, while the U.S. government shutdown is in progress, though why the website must be shut down is a mystery to me).  The island was originally populated by the Chumash Indian tribe, and then taken over by Mexico, which briefly used it as a home for convicted criminals (thus “Prisoners Harbor”), and then granted to a Mexican army captain. There was then a series of owners and litigation over ownership worthy of a mini-series or a big fat book, like the kind Michener used to write.

Santa Cruz Island, Prisoner's Harbor

More importantly, the island was home to a thriving sheep ranch and then a cattle ranch. It was also used for hunting, fishing, smuggling, and military operations. By the time the majority of island land was sold to the Nature Conservancy, introduced species like sheep and feral pigs, and invasive species like the Golden Eagle were destroying native island ecology. Endemic species, notably the Island Scrub-Jay and Island Fox, were in danger of extinction. The Nature Conservancy to the rescue! Seriously, they (and I assume the U.S. Park Service, though I can’t research that part of it with their website down!) have done an incredible job here, removing the sheep and pigs, relocating the Golden Eagles and re-introducing the Bald Eagle, replanting bare hillsides with native plants, and more.

Santa Cruz Island: Kayakers!

There are two places to land on Santa Cruz Island. If you’re a boy scout or a kayaker or an athletic young person, then you probably want to get off at Scorpion Anchorage, where you can kayak and hike and camp and play the guitar. If you’re a birder or a Nature Conservancy person, then you probably want to disembark at Prisoner’s Harbor, because that is where the Island Scrub Jay hangs out.

Santa Cruz Island: Island Scrub Jay 1

Scrub-Jays are members of the Corvid family, and they were considered one species till 1998, when they were split by the AOU into three species–Western Scrub-Jay, Island Scrub-Jay, and Florida Scrub-Jay. The Island Scrub-Jay looks very much like the Western Scrub-Jay (which itself is a candidate for being split into coastal and inland species), only it is darker and larger, with a heavier bill. The bird is on the Yellow list of the American Bird Conservancy, which means that it is in need of conservation attention, but not to as great a degree as those species on the Red list. However, Birdlife International has uplisted the species to the Vulnerable list because (1) it exists only on this island and can be wiped out by a catastrophe, like a super-storm, and (2) it’s vulnerable to West Nile disease. Also, while it had been estimated that there were 9,000 scrub-jays on the island, more recent counts indicate there are far fewer–less than 3,000 individuals and less than 1,000 breeding pairs.  The Nature Conservancy is on the case, and has a program to vaccinate the birds.  It involves peanuts on a stick, a box, and a vaccine.

Santa Cruz Island: Island Scrub-Jay 2

Ian and I were, of course, most anxious to see the Island Scrub-Jay, and it didn’t take long before we heard it. Another few minutes later we saw the bird! And then another. And then another. The birds had a maddening habit of appearing just beyond the distance needed for good photographs or in the middle of a tree or vocalizing very near us and then flying away before we could aim our cameras. Still, we were very happy to see so many Island Scrub-Jays; both for conservation reasons and because they were Life Birds! I wondered whether, like their cousin, the Florida Scrub-Jay, they could be coaxed closer with peanuts. Alas, I had no peanuts with me, for a reason only Ian knows, and probably would not have tried this even if I did, out of respect for the rules of the organizations that own the island.

The other endemic creature living on Santa Cruz Island is the Island Fox, a small creature the size of a small house cat (so they say, Ian and I think it’s a pretty large cat). In fact, “there are six subspecies of the island fox, each of which is native to a specific Channel Island, and which evolved there independently of the others” (thank you Wikipedia).  The Island Fox population had fallen to less than 100, mostly due to the arrival of the Golden Eagle, when the Nature Conservancy and its partners started its Island Fox Recovery Program in 2002. The program included captive breeding, close monitoring in the wild, and vaccination, and has been so successful that the captive breeding program could be discontinued. There are now more than 1,300 Island Foxes on the island.


We spotted our first Island Fox down the hill, right after our first Island Scrub-Jays flew away. And, then, like the scrub-jay, we saw another! And another! We were so excited, we ran after them (at a distance) and took photograph after photograph. Let me tell you, it was really hard not to go up to this totally adorable and almost cooperative fox and remove those grasses by its face. Later, we found the Island Fox pictured at the beginning of this post, hunting the picnic area. The Park Service provides fox-proof bins where visitors can store their lunches, and they are definitely needed. Every fox has the most trusting expression on its face, doesn’t it? Even when it’s scrounging under a Park Service jeep or trying to open a large cooler on a picnic table.

Santa Cruz Island: Common Raven A pair of Common Ravens also frequented the picnic area, first calling to one another, and then coming down to seek out goodies. I wished they had stayed up in the trees. Seeing these majestic birds poke around like, well, crows, really took something away from their mythic stature.

It turned out that the island was very birdy, that you didn’t need to hike very far to see birds (we had decided not to go on the 4.3 Nature Conservancy hike), and, as one of the naturalists on the boat told me, anything could show up. This Clay-colored Sparrow was a very good find, both for the island and California. It was foraging on a dusty path with a stripey western Savannah Sparrow and a western Chipping Sparrow (I found that many of familiar sparrows looked very different in California).

Santa Cruz Island: Clay-Colored Sparrow 1

Finally, at 4pm, it was time to board the boat for the trip home. The boat was delayed by about 20 minutes, which gave us an opportunity to sit by and dock and simply enjoy the beautiful view. A trip to Santa Cruz Island is not a pelagic, but it does offer up its own unique wonders.
Santa Cruz Island: The Dock to Nowhere

June in the Daks, part 1

Daks: Bloomingdale Bog
It was time to go back to the Adirondacks. I had a yearning to see bogs and wildflowers, boreal birds and unusual dragonflies. So, I joined Scott Barnes, Linda Mack, and a very interesting group of people on New Jersey Audubon’s annual Adirondacks van trip in mid-June. I was looking forward to this trip for several reasons:
– The itinerary involved areas of the Daks I had never been to before;
– It was a VAN trip, which meant I did not have to drive;
– During the years (all too few years) I was a volunteer at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, I had signed people up for this trip with a great deal of envy since my schedule always conflicted, usually with a work thing;
– I had heard fun stories about the trip from my friend Laura, Somewhere in New Jersey.  The stories usually involved black flies, lots of black flies, but I figured that if Laura was covered with  biting bugs and still had a good time, then this must be one hell of a trip.

Daks: Bog!
We zipped up north to the Saranac Lake, Franklin County area on a Friday and headed immediately for Bloomingdale Bog. Boreal bogs are the cornerstone of Adirondack birding, nutrient-poor wetlands that accumulate acidic peat, a deposit of dead plant material. Because of the lack of nutrients, the number of plants and creatures that grow in boreal bogs is limited, but those that do are very special, living things that can live in harsh conditions and often no place else. Places like Bloomingdale Bog take hundreds of years to form, and are too easily destroyed. So, I was happy to be in this special place.

Daks: Scott Proceeds with Caution

We walked down Bigelow Road, a dirt road at the northern end of the bog. (I’m a bit confused about the relationship between Bloomingdale Bog and Bigelow Road. They seem to be the same but separate places.) And walked. And walked. It was late afternoon and not very birdy. But, there seemed to be a purpose to our walk, and finally Scott told us that he had been told about a Black-backed Woodpecker nest in the area. Right past the big puddle. Oh. Since Scott had gotten these directions a week ago, there was much discussion about whether the puddle would still be there, and what constituted a big puddle. But, soon the well-eared amongst us (not me!) heard the sound of young woodpeckers, and there was a Black-backed Woodpecker feeding young at a fairly large hole in a tree near the road.

Daks: Blackbacked Woodpecker
I was lucky, I got a good look before the bird flew away.  But not everybody did, the greenery blocked a straight-on view for many in the group. So we waited, and soon the mama woodpecker was flying in. We couldn’t see the baby birds, deep in the nest hole, but we could certainly hear them chittering away in joy as mama arrived. And, a few feet down the road we found an excellent viewing site where somebody had clipped the greenery down to eye level. Aha! A much better marker than a puddle (which actually was still there). And, everybody got to see these beautiful, striking woodpeckers. Life bird for some, a good bird for all. An excellent start to the weekend!


On the way back, we encountered our second boreal species, Gray Jay! These birds are irresistible–gregarious, curious, and totally adorable looking. An interesting change from the imposing Blue Jays I’m used to. I had first seen Gray Jays out in Colorado, where we would throw them chips and then try to photograph them as they ate the chips and flew away. These jays were no different. When we encountered them again the next day, Cathy volunteered to share her peanuts with the jays, and she quickly became the most popular birder in the bog!

Daks: Cathy and the Gray Jay

It wasn’t always easy to photograph the Gray Jays, they moved very quickly to and from Cathy’s hand, flying to the top of a tall spruce when the peanuts ran out. But, they were a lot closer than many of the other boreal species we saw that weekend. Yellow-belled, Least, and Alder Flycatchers and Lincoln’s Sparrow were all seen best through the scope.

Daks: Typical Flycatcher View in the Adirondacks

Daks: Birding in the RainI was extremely happy that the other boreal species we saw naked-eye in your face close was Mourning Warbler, Geothlypis philadelphia. We encountered this songbird on a rainy Sunday, first on a roadside where only a few of us saw it well, and then, wonder of wonders, at the Azure Mountain trailhead. This handsome, vigorous bird was singing loudly when we got there, and just a hint of its song brought it into our sight immediately. He did not leave the area until we left, though he spent most of his time in the brush and leaves, as they are wont to do. This was definitely my favorite bird of the trip.

Daks: Mourning Warbler Rules

Daks: PinkThere are many natural wonders to enjoy in the Adirondacks in addition to birds. I am clueless when it comes to the striking plant life, so I’m going to quote from the excellent Paul Smith’s College Visitor’s Interpretive Center web page:  “This habitat is a nutrient-poor, acidic wetland dominated by sphagnum mosses, sedges, and shrubs and evergreen trees rooted in deep peat. The two main trees found on Barnum Bog are Black Spruce and Tamarack. Tamaracks, which are also known as the Eastern Larch or American Larch, are coniferous (cone-bearing) trees which behave like a deciduous tree; the needles of the Tamarack turn a golden yellow in fall and drop to the ground, appearing again in the spring. Tamaracks thrive in the acidic environment of bogs.”  The photo on the left is a Tamarack, Larix laricina, close-up. Yes! Those are cones, in this case young female cones. The male cones are yellow. 

Daks: White
The flowers are pretty too. 

Daks.A Little History

I’m going to write about the dragonflies and butterflies of the Daks, and a surprise non-bird creature, in another blog post, June in the Daks, part 2.  To end this post, here are some photos of the view from the last stop on our trip, Whiteface Mountain. I did not get the life bird view of Bicknell’s Thrush that I was hoping for, but I did hear it. (In a way I’m happy I didn’t get the bird, because that means I still have a life bird in New York State to look forward to.)  I also got an interesting lesson in attitudes towards the environment in 1929, when the building of the Whiteface Memorial Highway was first proposed. “A few spots should be left for those who enjoy the out-of-doors on foot.” Well, I tend to agree with preserving land, but I’m happy they built that road. Climbing 4,867  feet is not my idea of birding fun. The road enabled us to drive almost to the top, with the remaining  267 feet achieved through an elevator reached through a tunnel into the mountain. Even on a cloudy day, the views were a wonderful reminder of the beauty of the Daks.

Daks: Whiteface Mt. Under the Gray

Daks: Whiteface Mt. view 2Whiteface Mountain

Cuckoo for Mangrove Cuckoos

Sometimes it’s best to start at the end. So, my first post about my April trip to the Dry Tortugas and the Florida Keys will be the story of how we found one, maybe two, but definitely one Mangrove Cuckoo. (And yes, I am one of those people who, when I think of Mangrove Cuckoo, can’t help singing “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”, sometimes out loud.)

FL: Mangrove Cuckoo in the Mangroves

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor, is a bird that has eluded many seekers. It is elusive. It is silent, except during breeding season, and even then its location can be enigmatic. Can you see the Mangrove Cuckoo in this photo? Its numbers are in decline in Florida. I had looked for Mangrove Cuckoo on two previous occasions: my 2006 January trip to Ding Darling and a quick trip in March 2010 to Key Largo. Mangrove Cuckoo is sometimes seen at Ding Darling, even in winter, but I didn’t looked very hard. I was still a beginner birder in 2006 and half-expected the bird to pop up in front of me, like a prize for making the trip on my own. My drive to Key Largo was squeezed in during one of my family visits to south Florida; I drove across the bridge as the sun rose and entered Dagny Johnson Botannical Park shortly after dawn. Mangrove Cuckoos breed in the Keys, and reports of the bird being found at Dagny Johnson periodically appear on the Tropical Audubon Birdboard. But, I was there too early in the year, and though I am sure the cuckoos were around somewhere, they did not make themselves known to me.

FL: Sugarloaf Boulevard

Mangrove Cuckoo was at the top of the list of target birds Ian and I carefully drew up when we planned our Florida excursion, and it turned out it was at the top of the list for other birders on our Dry Tortugas trip. We pooled info on the ride back to Key West. Mangrove Cuckoo had recently been reported in Sugarloaf Key, a small island that is part of the lower Florida Keys, and John had gotten the coordinates. Not far at all from Key West. The seven of us who did not have planes to catch made plans to meet at the “cuckoo coordinates” on Sugarloaf Boulevard, also known as CR 939.

Sugarloaf Key: Looking for the MACU

We did not see the Mangrove Cuckoo at the magic coordinates. We played every Mangrove Cuckoo call we had from our pooled resources of phone apps and bird CD’s. We looked. We hoped. We listened. Nothing. Three of our group went on their way, four of us continued. Larry Manfredi, the leader of our Dry Tortugas trip, had told us the bird could be found anywhere on Sugarloaf in the proper habitat. And, Larry knows Cuckoos.

We were tired. It had been a long day, our last day birding Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, birding on the boat ride back to Key West, photographing Bridled Terns and Brown Boobies, saying goodbyes as we decamped from the Playmate. We were determined. We continued down Sugarloaf Boulevard, which became a dirt road. We continued down the dirt road till we couldn’t drive anymore. There were mangroves all around us. A narrow dirt path continued into the woods, but Ian pointed out that the dead end itself felt very birdy. We couldn’t see a lot of birds, but we could hear them. We played cuckoo calls again. Nothing. So we waited.

Sugarloaf Key: Junglefowl

A Red Junglefowl, a bird known as making its home in Key West, stepped out of the mangroves. This was very strange.

I became distracted by the dragonflies flying over a stream of water next to the trail. Little Blue Dragonlets, Erythrodiplax minuscule, mostly. I think, I hope. Small in size, wings forward. This is a female.

FL: Dragon

And then, we heard it. The distinct call of the Mangrove Cuckoo. We ran towards the call. We didn’t see anything, and then Joanne pointed to something flying over the road. Yes! The Mangrove Cuckoo! The bird was here! We waited. Calls from both sides of the road. And then, there it was, perched on a tree right at the edge, looking at us. We looked back. And we relished our good fortune, that we got to see this wonderful bird on our own, without guide or tape or predetermined coordinates. All it took was good ears and good counsel and a lot of patience.

FL: Mangrove Cuckoo

My Great Gray Owl

It’s been a little over two months since I saw the Great Gray Owl.  January 6th, to be exact, in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. It was my first Great Gray Owl, Strix nebulosa, a bird I’ve been coveting for years, ever since I realized that I had missed the Great Gray Owl invasion of 2004-5.  This was the bird I most wanted to see in 2012.

Ontario: Great Gray Owl 2

The owl was first reported on December 23rd, 2011 and it was a big deal. There are Great Gray Owls in Ontario, but not in the southwest, near the shore of Lake Erie, a half-hour southeast of Windsor, just across the Ambassador Bridge and 20 minutes west of Pt. Pelee. This was a Great Gray Owl that could be easily seen. If you lived in Michigan or Ohio or Ontario.

I lusted after the Great Gray Owl in frustration for weeks till I realized that in early January I would be in a place, let’s say Chicago, that was only a short drive, let’s say 5.5 hours, away.  The owl was not being seen regularly at that point. I had contacted a couple of local birders, hoping it was one of those situations where people just weren’t reporting it, which seemed crazy to me, but it was rural Canada, a town of around 20,000 people, so–who knew? The absence of news was not promising, but sometimes one needs to trust the birding goddess. I got into my rental car and drove east.

My path took me through Indiana, where I chanced on a Snowy Owl (thank goodness for birders who point out owls to strangers) at a place called Port of Indiana on Lake Michigan, which turned out to be a guarded industrial area, not a real port.  Here is a digiscoped photo of the owl, taken before the security people showed up and threatened to take away my camera.
Indiana: Snowy Owl on the Jetty

It was dark by the time I got to the Ambassador Bridge, barely visible behind construction and detour signs. Night in Windsor, coffee at Tim Horton’s, time to go for the bird. It was only then I realized that not only could I not use my iPhone to check the Ontario listserv or to call the local birders, I couldn’t use the GPS function to find my way to the bird. I was in Canada, a foreign country, helpless without my phone.

A little more coffee and I realized I needed to go east. And south. And east, towards the sun. I knew I was in the right place when I recognized the street signs, set far apart in this rural area comprised of very large rectangles of fields and woods. The owl was not at its last location. This was o.k. because sometimes you want to do a little work to find the bird. Calling on expertise imparted by my birding mentors, I did that sophisticated thing you do when looking for a famous rarity: drive around and look for the big cameras. And, it worked!

Ontario: My First View of My Great Gray Owl

I saw the small mob of photographers and tripods on McCain Side Road, south of the intersection with Road Two. Pulling over behind the line of cars, I jumped out, camera and scope in hand. I assumed the owl was much further down the road, beyond the crowd, and started running. Then I stopped. I had left my bins in the car. I stood in the road for a second, stuck between running to see the owl immediately, before it flew off as it undoubtedly would, and taking a minute to retrieve my binoculars. And then, my problem was solved. A large dark being flew out from the clutch of photographers, aimed straight towards me, and perched on a branch of a tree on the edge of the road, 6 feet away. “Well,” I said to myself, “I guess I won’t need the binoculars.” This was my first view of my Great Gray Owl. I was in love. And, I think he was in love with me.

Ontario: Great Gray Owl Stands AloneBecause, this is what happened: After gasping and staring and photographing and some more gasping and staring, I walked across the road to put my scope in a safe place, away from cars and the photographers, who were awkwardly running up the road with their cameras and tripods. I stood by my car, parked in front of the only house on the street. I looked up. The owl was flying across the road to a short tree in front of me, and then onto this post, a little lower down. Directly in front of me. The photographers looked at me suspiciously, then ran across the road and set up their tripods on either side of me. I started wondering if the owl would follow me into my car, but figured it would be hard to explain the bird to immigration control.

Ontario: Great Gray Close-up
The Great Gray Owl was not as large or as massive as I had imagined; his shape had a compact, tapering quality, and the shape of the head changed as he stretched and preened. His colors were lovely, gray and ecru (o.k., off-white), brown, and all shades in-between, changing with the light. The thin line of white feathers under his face, his bow-tie, gave him a natty, dressed-for-success-but-a-little-worn-out look. His eyes, when he chose to open them, were that incredible neon-bright yellow, but mostly they were hooded, set far back in his head. I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I couldn’t help wonder what the owl was feeling. Sometimes he looked gentle, other times, very stern and impatient with us humans.

Ontario: Great Gray Owl Listening

Here is one of my favorite photos. I was wondering if those indentations indicated where the owl’s ear openings were, so I asked my very knowledgeable birder friends via Facebook. Allison Shock, also known as Three-Star Owl, replied, “That may not be the actual opening where the wind has parted the plumage, but it’s close — the ear openings are right behind the rows of stiffened feathers in the facial disc. You’ve got yourself a real case of “Half Dome Head” there! Allow me to rudely quote myself: Half-Dome Head: the Geology of Owl Crania.” Allison is a sculptor as well as a birder, so she needs to know about things like skulls and feathers. Please, read her article. She does a great job describing technical things in language we can all understand, such as why the Great Gray Owl’s face is shaped like a radar dish and why the head is shaped like the granitic dome formation, Half Dome, in Yosemite Valley, California,

Another Facebook friend, birder photographer Christopher Ciccone, wrote, “Some additional cool info… the sides of the skull are right next to the outside edge of the eyes – the rest of that big head is all feathers! Also, the ear holes are not even – one is higher than the other to help them hear in 3d. Very cool adaptions!!” I knew about the all-feathers fun fact, which is pretty amazing. I did not know about the asymmetrical ear holes. And, according to the Lab of O’s Birds of North America, it also has an asymmetrical skull! The left external ear opening is directed further upwards than the right external opening; this gives the owl very precise directional hearing.

Ontaro: Photographers Waiting for the Owl

A lot of birders had traveled to see this owl, but the day I was there, I felt like I was the only birder in the crowd. There were photographers and local people and me. Some of the people who lived in the area had seen the bird almost every day. Mothers came with their kids, businessmen stopped their cars on the road to ask how it was doing, police waved. Still, I was concerned. People were getting very close to the owl. The photographers stood in front of it, and on the rare occasions when the owl faced them and open his eyes, all their cameras went off at once. Hey, if I were a Great Gray Owl, I would not be happy about that. What? You only love me full frontal with my eyes open? “You have wings,” I told the owl telepathically, “Use them.”

And, he did. He flew off, across the fields, into the woods. The photographers looked after him wistfully, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Lunch break.” The locals went home. I went off in search of more Snowy Owls, and to see the entrance of that mythical place, Pt. Pelee. It would be nice to see my Great Gray Owl again, but if he wanted to take the rest of the day off, find a hidden field where he could hunt for mice in peace, that was fine with me.

Postscript: The Great Gray Owl was not seen again that day, and by mid-January he was gone. Maybe. Someone said they saw him last week, March 15th, on the east side of Kingsville, but no one else was able to find it. I like that idea. The owl is out there, on the shores of Lake Erie, successfully eluding the people who would adore it.

What? Another Snowy Owl Post?

Genoa, NY: Snowy Owl There are Snowy Owls all over the United States! Vermont, Indiana, Washington, South Dakota, even Hawaii (though that one was sadly shot ’cause it was at the airport…I know, I don’t get it either). Word came through NJBirds on November 9th that a Snowy Owl had been found by Merrill Creek Reservoir, and I finally decided I absolutely needed to see it in early December. (And, the Owl is still there as I write this up in mid-January.)

I have been a fortunate birder when it comes to Snowy Owls. I saw my Life Snowy Owl in May 2006 in Genoa, NY; it just happened to show up while I was at nearby Cornell on a work trip. That’s the sweetie’s photo above. No one knew what it was doing in upstate New York in May.

Jones Beach: Snowy Owl again!

And, then there was the winter of 2008 when all you had to do for a Snowy Owl fix was take a walk along Jones Beach. Owls here, owls there, Snowy Owls everywhere! This one was at West End 2. You wouldn’t know it, but it was surrounded by birders and photographers. There have been others, but I don’t want to spend this post gloating.

I made the trek out to Warren County on December 3rd. A birder had kindly given very specific instructions on how to locate the Snowy, which had found a new spot by the south dam, away from the water.  I had never been to Merrill Creek Reservoir before, and rejoiced in my personal discovery of a new birding spot on a beautiful sunny (and cold) afternoon.

NJ: Merrill Creek Reservoir

NJ: Merrill Creek Crow

The directions took me from an unmarked parking lot on Fox Farm Road through the woods, where a murder of crows were noisily congregating (murdering?), to an unused gravel road, around a locked gate that barely allowed my camera passage, and along the top of the south dam, pictured above.

NJ: Merrill Creek Reservoir: The View From Below

The Snowy Owl was way, way down from the dam path! I put my scope on him, got my look, and  gave the many non-birders who had heard about the owl views.  I love doing that, especially with kids. A walk down to where I could view the Snowy closer was next. The photo above gives you some idea how far down I had to go to be somewhat on the same level as the Owl, though it was still pretty far away. The smart bird had found a spot in the sun in an area separated from gawky sightseers by a ditch, rocks, and a sign saying “Do Not Enter This Area.”

NJ: Snowy Owl Takes a Peek at Her Worshippers

It was very happy, dozing, swiveling its head (usually away from us!), and preening. I was very happy just watching it.
NJ: Snowy Owl Preening

There has been a lot written about this year’s influx of Snowy Owls. Birders are saying that it is not just a lack of lemmings and other goodies in their native northern tundra. The story is that there were so many lemmings this summer that there was an explosion of young owls, and that what we are seeing are young males who have been crowded out. That doesn’t explain the all-white Snowy that has been seen regularly at Jones Beach, or this owl, which birders say is a juvenile female. It will be interesting to see how many more Snowys appear this winter. And the ornithological conclusion as to why. Personally, I find the reasoning why engaging, but the seeing is pure wonder and joy.

A Fall Morning at Negri-Nepote

I made a point of getting up early. There’s a special quality of light when you arrive at Negri-Nepote Grasslands early in the morning, misty gold, and the birds are much chirpier. Also, I was hoping to beat the hunters. Negri-Nepote is a grassland preserve in Somerset County, New Jersey, across Rte. 27 and down the road a bit, and the hunting season has been extended, as it has been in many New Jersey preserves, to help cull the deer. I was in luck today, the parking lot was empty. Well, empty of people.


nn.path There is one path that leads from the parking lot, on the edge of the forbidden farm to the southwest (those are PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs there). The view up the slope is clouded by early morning fog, so it takes me a minute to see the sparrows flying low across the path, from the trees on the farm border to the tall grass on the other side. Song, Savannah, White-throats, and, yes, Swamp Sparrow.

swampsparrow There have been a lot of Swamp Sparrows this year at Negri-Nepote. Some autumns I don’t see any. I think this is an immature Swamp Sparrow, note the slight streaking on the breast. It was clinging to a grass stalk in the field, enjoying the view, until some instinct told it, “Hunker down, lady with camera approaching!”

The sparrows are mostly silent this time of year. Yellow-rumped Warblers chip up and down the path, small flocks winging through the trees. And, then there are the Blue Jays, yapping away. In the mist, they look more gray than blue.

Up the slope, I easily see an Eastern Towhee and Field Sparrow in the Forbidden Zone. I approach Hannah Pond quietly. Susan T. came up with this name after the storm named Hannah destroyed some of our favorite birdy trees, and we’re making it stick by using it in every NJBirding report. I’m pleased to see my Pied-billed Grebe (I first spotted it two weeks ago) swimming with 16 Mallards.
And, there’s something on the wood duck nesting box, something large with an owl-like head, but not an owl. Northern Harrier! (Northern Harriers have an owl-like facial disk which gives them that special look as well as help them locate prey by sound.) The hawk rises as I try to take it’s photo from the blind, soars for 10 seconds then goes down with a vertical snap, settling on the edge of the pond with whatever it was he decided to eat for breakfast. Every other winged creature in Hannah Pond takes flight.
Negri-Nepote: Harrier at Hannah Pond

I hear a Red-tailed Hawk from the direction of the upper field. There is a nesting pair in the preserve, but I usually have to go to the other ends of the fields, northeast or northwest, to see them. Not today. It’s a short-walk morning, a work-day walk. The mist is gone, the uncut grass of the field above the pond shines golden.
Negri-Nepote: Fall Field

Coney Island Gulls Welcome Gray-hooded Gull to the ‘Hood

I was getting my hair cut when Seth re-found the Gray-hooded Gull, Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus, Saturday early afternoon.  I read the news on my iphone, sighed, and said to Diana, who had just finished washing my hair, “There’s a good bird at Coney Island.  A Gray-hooded Gull.   Usually seen in South America or Africa.”  Diana, who is young and for some reason interested in my birding activities, said, “Really?  I never see any good birds around here, just pigeons.” 

I laughed.  Because, that is the beautiful irony of birding, that magical creatures are found in the most unlikely places.  An Ash-throated Flycatcher in a vacant lot by a subway station.  A Hooded Crow in a bustling Staten Island park.  And now, the second sighting of Gray-hooded Gull in the United States, flying and foraging in the midst of that classic Brooklyn boardwalk/beach scene, Coney Island.  Not far, mileage-wise, from Forest Hills, Queens. 

Coney Island: Beach

On a sunny, beautiful, hot Saturday afternoon, it took more than a few minutes to drive to Coney Island and find parking.  I didn’t feel the anxiety I sometimes feel when I’m chasing a bird, the suspense of whether it will still be there or whether I will hear those dreaded words, “It was just here 5 minutes ago.”  The bird had been seen, the bird was seen the day before, it had been seen six days ago at noon.  That gull was not going anywhere else today.  I walked down the boardwalk, past couples dancing to a live band, past guys lounging on the rail, past families dripping water munching on French fries and tacos, to the recommended spot, between Nathan’s and the Wonder Wheel.
Coney Island: Wonder Wheel

There was a small knot of birders, recognizable by their field marks—binoculars, scopes, the fact that they were not wearing bathing suits, to the left of the bathing pavilion.  Not all looking at the same spot, which meant they did not have the bird.  One of them pointed to a flock of gulls further down.  Too far to view without a scope and I had left mine in the car, so I walked on.  I stopped to look at the Laughing Gulls flying in large circles over the beach.  And, immediately, I spotted a gull that was different. 

Coney Island: Gray-hooded Gull Aloft

The head was gray.  Not the splotchy gray of a first summer Laughing Gull, a lovely smooth gray hood distinctly delineated from the white body.  And the wings!  The upper wings were a work of art, a black-and-white pattern in decorative geometry. 

Coney Island: Gray-hooded Gull on the Wing

If I were reporting on this bird for an ornithological magazine, this is what I would write, “ The upper wings had a prominent white leading edge, the white being most extensive on the middle primaries and primary coverts.  The wing tip was mostly a large black triangle, which extended up both the leading and trailing edge. …A large white and short rectangular subterminal mirror was present on each of the two outermost primaries.”  [quoted from The Gray-hooded Gull in North America: First Documented Record, by Douglas B. McNair, North American Birds, vol. 53 (1999), issue 3] I am very bad at observing these details, so thank you, Douglas McNair. I prefer to observe the larger picture, the gull as art soaring over my head, over the Wonder Wheel, and back to the beach, with a grace that cannot be conveyed in a photograph.

I was 99% sure I had The Bird.  Looking back at the birders, I saw they were also observing it (confirmation!) as it flew out of sight. Back with the members of my tribe, engaging in the obligatory congrats and “what a great bird” comments, one of the birders kindly pointed out to me that the bird was still in the vicinity.  In fact, it was perched on a utility pole, right above my head! Which was quite fortunate, since I was so busy looking at it the first time, I had forgotten I had a camera.

Coney Island: Gray-hooded Gull !

Perched, I could observe it’s pale eye (“The orbital ring was carmine, the iris pale yellowish-white, the pupil dark” McNair), red legs, and red bill.  The first two features, as well as the uniform gray hood, were useful in distinguishing it from the Laughing Gulls , which became necessary when it flew over to perch with them on the roof of the bathing pavilion. 

Coney Island: Gull Fest

We soon had non-birders, including the local police, observing the bird with us, picking it out of the flock by finding the gull with the headlights, the two white windows that appeared when it flew overhead.

Coney Island: GHGU Underwing

For those of you not familiar with the history of how this gull was found:  the original finders, who had only been birding for a year, sent the sighting to ebird as a Black-headed Gull.  Doug, the ebird arbiter for the area, asked for a photo.  Black-headed Gull in mid-summer is noteworthy and unusual.  He looked at the photo and, I imagine, said, “That ain’t no Black-headed Gull!”  Several days had elapsed, and most of us thought the bird had moved on, but Shane, the Brooklyn bird whisperer, re-found the bird late Friday afternoon.   It then appeared that the bird would be a 3-observer wonder, as it flew off before many other birders could see it, the beach was closed for fireworks, and a thunderstorm drenched the 5-minutes too late birders.  But, no no no, it looks like this gull will be with us for a while.  Who’s to say how long?  The Gray-hooded Gull ain’t talking, just flying and foraging, just like it’s supposed to be doing.

Life List – A Review with thoughts on Phoebe

Phoebe Snetsinger was the ultimate “lister”, famous for seeing more birds than any person in the world.  She passed away in 1999, while on a birding trip in Madagascar. She became a birder when she was a young wife and mother. She became a lister when she was diagnosed with metastatic malignant melanoma when she was about 50.
Sandy Hook: Blackburnian Warbler 2
Blackburnian Warbler was Phoebe’s “spark bird”, the bird that famously made her a birder.

I originally wrote this review of Life List, a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger by Olivia Gentile, for the QCBC Newsletter in 2009. I read the book right before my trip to Ecuador, and thought of Phoebe frequently as I prepared.  I studed neo-tropical birds, because that is what Phoebe would do.  I sprayed my hiking pants with Repel and wondered if Phoebe used bug spray or if, in her magic-ness, she was immune to bug bites.  I was thrilled to find out, once I got to Sacha Lodge, that one of my birding companions, a charming older man named Gus, had birded with Phoebe.  She was a nice woman, he told me, in a certain tone of voice.  A little intense, he later added.  There was probably a story there, but Gus never said more.

I love the fact that one of the most famous birders in the contemporary world was a woman. A competitive woman! There are many female birders, but there have been too many times that I’ve been the only woman in the group of obsessed birders looking for The Bird. What would Phoebe do? Would she be self-conscious? Would she stand quietly in the background? Oh no! I don’t think so!

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile. NY, Bloombury Books, 2009.

And how many birds are on your life list? For most birders, that question  brings on discussion (what is countable?) or argument (the green footprint of “listers”) or reminiscence (that great trip for the Gloucester Ivory Gull).  For Phoebe Snetsinger, that question was her life. Literally. This is the Phoebe Snetsinger myth, as told to me by a Central Park birder: Phoebe, a housewife and mother of four from Webster Groves, Missouri, was told by her doctor that she had cancer and 6-months to live. Phoebe rejected treatment and started birding. After 6-months she was still alive! So, Phoebe continued birding around the world, and when she finally died 18 years later, 1999, not from cancer but from an automobile accident on a birding trip, she had seen more than anyone else in the world. She had seen over 8,000 bird species. (The exact number of species depends on which taxonomy you use. Phoebe developed her own taxonomy, and according to that she had a life list of 8,674 when she died.)

I was surprised when I heard that Olivia Gentile, a writer who is not a birder, was writing a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger. I had read Phoebe’s memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time (published by the American Birding Association), and I wondered: What else was there to say? In her memoir, published posthumously with a concluding chapter by her son, Phoebe very thoroughly describes her life before and after birding, including a whole chapter on her documentation system! (As a librarian, that was my favorite chapter.)

Well, it turns out, there was a lot more. Whereas Birding on Borrowed Time is a rather dry narrative, Life List is a thoughtful examination of the life of an intelligent woman coming into her own. Gentile emphasizes the fact that Phoebe was birding intensively well-before she received her diagnosis. (Her trigger bird, seen when she was 34-years old, was a Blackburnian Warbler.) She sees Phoebe’s immersion into birding as both a reaction to and an escape from the years she spent as a housewife and mother, putting aside ambitions for her own career and supporting that of her husband Dave, which was what women did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Gentile examines how Phoebe’s birding changed over the years, how she progressed from simply enjoying nature to obsessive worldwide birding to compulsive competitive listing She retells many of the birding adventures that Phoebe describes in her memoir, but with the added perspectives of trip leaders, birding companions, and the family that Phoebe increasingly ignored.

Gentile is not a birder, she is clearly struggling throughout the book to understand why birders, not just Phoebe but all the birders she brings into the story, are obsessed. But, she does take care to describe some of the more exotic and important birds that Phoebe observes, the birds-of-paradise of New Guinea, White-necked Rockfowl (Phoebe’s nemesis bird till she went to the Ivory Coast on her own just to see it), Helmet Vanga, the target bird on her last trip to Madagascar. The birds are illustrated in water color by Rebecca Layton, and I wish there were more of them, they are lovely.

What Gentile lacks in birder empathy is made up for in her descriptions of what it was like to bird the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Phoebe developed her life list at a wonderful time in birding history, when companies like Bird Bonanza were being started, field guides to birds in Central and South America were being written, and “listing” was a nascent obsession. So, as Phoebe takes hundreds of trips to seven continents, we meet the birders she travelled with, many of them discoverers of new species or founders of the new bird touring companies. We learn about the many misadventures that could befall birders in a foreign country, including Phoebe’s own abduction and gang rape in Papua New Guinea.  (This horrible event, brushed off by Phoebe as unfortunate but not worth talking about, is seen by Gentile as highly significant.)  And, we experience how Phoebe’s heart “stopped” when she saw the Harpy Eagle in Amazonian Peru, her euphoria at unexpectedly seeing Blakiston’s Fish-Owl in Japan, and, always, the anticipation and excitement of planning to go somewhere new to look for birds.