Category Archives: Travel

Birding Panama or How I Escaped the Polar Vortex

There was nothing but snow as I travelled to Newark Airport on February 22nd. Susannah and I chatted with the shuttle driver, but our thoughts could have been summed up in a few words: ‘It’s finally here. Panama. A place with No Snow!’ (See example above, the mountains of western Panama. That white stuff is fog, NOT snow.) Our New Jersey Audubon group gathered at the gate, 6 men and 6 women, including tour leader Scott Barnes. Most had already birded Panama with Scott and our Panama leader, Guido Berguido of Advantage Tours. I had never been to Panama, but I had a little neotropical birding experience, and had packed the birding essentials: bins, cameras, power cords, Tilly hat, granola bars, deet. I was looking forward to to getting to know my birding companions, and to seeing Panama, land of the canal.

I was not disappointed. Here are some highlights, presented in two blog posts. And, I have to note that there were many other highlights I couldn’t photograph for one reason or another. We birded from dawn to dusk, literally, on the road and in the van and during meals. The ideal birding trip.

Panama: White-necked Jacobin

We spent our first few days at Soberania Lodge, otherwise known as Guido’s Place, in Gamboa. About 40 minutes from Panama City, Gamboa was once a town for Panama Canal workers, and is now the entry point for Soberania National Park, where birders bird and researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute study neotropical plants, bats, insects, and, I hope, birds. We occasionally ran into a researcher in the park and at the lodge, which houses Smithsonian students as well as birders.

Panama: White-necked Jacobin, Female

“Down time” was spent in that time honored neotropical birding pastime, watching the feeders. White-necked Jacobins, Florisuga mellivora, had the monopoly here. The Neotropical Birds website calls them medium-sized hummers, but I think they are huge. White-necked Jacobins inhabit a broad range in the Neotropics (I’ve seen them in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Trinidad), and can be pretty aggressive. That’s the male and the female above. The male has the distinctive white neck and is sticking out his tongue. Nectar, yummm. The female is more difficult to identify, as female hummers tend to be.

Panama: Gray-headed Chachalaca

Gray-headed Chacalacas, Ortalis cinereiceps, were noisy, regular visitors, often eating every banana in sight.

Panama: Feeder Friends

But, there were times when the other birds, like this Blue-Gray Tanager, Thraupis episcopus, just put their claws down and refused to move.

Panama: CCT (as in Clay-colored Thrush)

Clay-colored Thrushes, Turdus grayi, were ubiquitous, seen pretty much everywhere we went in addition to the feeders. We called them CCT’s or, for old timers, CCR’s (Clay-colored Robin, the old name).

Panama: Agouti Under the Feeders

The agoutis, a rodent species, were also common to the point of being tame. It was a big difference from the agoutis in Trinidad, which also helped themselves to fallouts from the feeders but then scampered away before I could get a decent photo.

Panama: Pipeline Road

Panama: There is a Pipe on Pipeline Road

Our birding for the first few days was in the vicinity of Gamboa, with many hours spent on the fabled Pipeline Road, which is really Soberania National Park. Yeah, there really is a pipe that runs along the trail and at odd places in the forest.

Panama: Birding Pipeline Road

A highlight of the first morning, at the tram parking lot, was this Orange-crowned Oriole, Icterus auricapillus, below. It was the third oriole species we saw there, and apparently a very unusual one for the area. Guido and Luis, our birding guides, were very excited about it, especially Luis.

Panama: Orange-crowned Oriole

Of course, we didn’t always look at birds, though there were fewer dragonflies and butterflies than I expected. Morphos flew along the path, uncatchable by hand or camera, and once in a while I spied a fantastically beautiful creature. This dragonfly has no common name, it is simply known as Rhodopygia hinei. I would have like to have gotten images from the front too, but my access was blocked by the tree below, which I call simply Spiny Tree.

Panama: Rhodopygia hinei

Panama: Spiny Tree

This small butterfly is known as Togarna Hairstreak, Arawacus togarna. It has a false head, intended to fool predators. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly how that works. If you’re eaten, you’re eaten, right? Does it matter from which end?

Panama: Arawacus togarna, Togarna Hairstreak

The rain forest was haunted by the roars of the Howler Monkeys, particularly during our first two days. I’ve never heard them so loud, and we wondered if they were defending their territory against another Howler Monkey tribe. (This is National Geographic on Howler Monkeys: Male monkeys have large throats and specialized, shell-like vocal chambers that help to turn up the volume on their distinctive call. The noise sends a clear message to other monkeys: This territory is already occupied by a troop.)

Panama: Parent and Child

Howler Monkey and Howler Child

Panama: Howler Monkey Pondering Life

Another Howler Monkey, pondering the silly birders and life in general.

Panama: Rest Stop on the Pipeline Road
This small rest stop along Pipeline Road was a good place for clean rest rooms and more birding. I photographed this Whooping Motmot there, a bird we also saw every day at Guido’s feeders. It’s part of what is call the “Blue-crowned Motmot complex”, a group  of motmots that were split into five species in 2010, leaving me very confused. (Still trying to figure out which Motmot I saw in Ecuador. Whooping?)
Panama: Whooping Motmot

One of the highlights of the trip was seeing this Rufous=vented Ground-Cuckoo, Neomorphus geoffroyi, along Pipeline Road. This juvenile bird had been seen on occasion by birders, including Luis, for the past week. Luis knew just where to go. We walked into the forest a few feet and waited. For once, our group was quiet. Soon, we could see the RVGC walking along the forest floor. Of course, a rainforest floor is not clean, it’s full of leaves and ground cover and vines and just a lot of stuff, so many of us were wiggling our heads and cameras, trying for a good full-body look and image.

Panama: Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo 2

The RVGV didn’t seem bothered by our presence at all, he just kept on walking and poking amongst the ground cover, probably looking for nice sized bugs. It didn’t even seem bothered when I used a flash on it–thus the purple eye in these photos. Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos are usually seen following large ant swarms. This was one of several birds we saw that week that usually follow ant swarms, so we figured we just missed one. (Darn! Seriously, if you are birding the rainforest, you want an ant swarm.) Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos also have a reputation as wary, skulkish birds (unless they are following an ant swarm). We were very fortunate to encounter this juvenile bird, which seemed too young to know that it should have hightailed it back into the forest as soon as one of use wiggled a finger.

Panama: Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

More in the next posting, Birding Panama, Part Two.


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

The Emily Post Guide to Birding Georgia

This is what happens when you travel for business or family and bird on the side:  you research locales and the Internet to target your limited time, you lug a duffel bag full of maps and birding guides so you don’t spend that time getting lost, you find great birds (sometimes), and you meet a lot of local birders (most times).    You discover that birding conversations follow the same pattern, whether you’re in Las Vegas, Chicago, or the Everglades:  where the bird is, what the bird is doing, where the bird was.  Sometimes, there is a digression:  who photographed the bird, who chased the bird away.  And, no one introduces themselves.  This has been my experience for the past eight years. The only names articulated are those of the bird.  Until I birded Georgia.

I discovered the uniqueness of birding Georgia a couple of months ago, when I had the pleasure of once again visiting Victoria Collett, who resides on Skidaway Island, outside Savannah.  This trip, I decided to fly into Jacksonville, FL and bird my way up the Georgia coast.  Plane fare cheaper, and there was a Buff-bellied Hummingbird on Jekyll Island.  I also discovered, once I landed and checked Georgia Birding, the online Rare Bird Alert, that a Harris’s Sparrow had been found that very day at a place called Altamaha WMA.   Harris’s Sparrow!  I needed that bird!  A quick check of my Delorme map showed Altamaha WMA was north of Jekyll Island, on the way to Savannah.

Jekyll Island: Buff-bellied Hummingbird 1

I got to Altamaha shortly after noon, having spent the morning photographing the Buff-bellied Hummer in the backyard of two lovely women (who were surprised that a New Yorker did not talk like a character out of Law and Order).   And then I ran into a problem.  The directions on the Internet seemed specific enough, but when I reached the coordinates that were supposed be Altamaha I found nothing, no sparrow, no birders.  I realized Altamaha is one of those places where directions only make sense if you have spent ten years birding it.  I tried driving around slowly.  There must be birders looking for this sparrow, right?   No birders, no sparrow.

Georgia: Altamaha 1

I tried parking the car and walking a trail.  Nothing.  Till I heard a car slowly driving up the tiny narrow dirt road.  Two nicely dressed women with binoculars around their necks greeted me cheerfully.   “Hello!  We found a Harris’s Sparrow yesterday; do you want to see it?”  And, then they did something even more astounding.  They introduced themselves.  Full names.  Towns.  They looked at me.  I stared back, dumbfounded, and then realized that I was expected to introduce myself too.  Name.  City.  Date I arrived in Georgia.

I thought the exchange might be an aberration.  Maybe these were two Southern belles who had taken up birding between socials and who just happened to stumble across a Harris’s Sparrow.

I got to the area where the Harris’s Sparrow was found (a half-mile from where I originally arrived, but down another narrow dirt trail that didn’t look like it could accommodate a car, around a pond  full of egrets and cormorants, and through a field), and found two more elegantly dressed women birders, who told me the Harris’s Sparrow had been seen around the bend.  And who introduced themselves and asked where I was from.  Really!  This was getting ridiculous.  I had a Life Bird to find.

Next field down, I spotted a clutch of birders holding binoculars.  And, putting them down.   Yes, I had missed the bird.  The Georgian birders extolled me with the basics, where the bird was, how the bird was photographed, what the bird looked like.  And, they introduced themselves.  Full names.  Towns.  The Southern belle theory went out the window, ‘cause these were all birding guys.  Except for the woman who brought me over to her station wagon and introduced her children.

Georgia: Altamaha 2

No Harris’s Sparrow, but there were four hundred and twenty blackbirds in a tree.

It turns out that not only do Georgian birders introduce themselves, they print everyone’s names in their Internet reports.  So, I had the honor of being mentioned in Georgia Birding two times that weekend, the first day I missed the bird, and the second day I missed the bird.  Because, of course I had to try again on the drive back to Jacksonville, the only day in January that the bird was not seen.  But, there is my name in print, documentation that I tried:  “Donna from New York”.  Yes, only Donna.  No last name.  Because, as much as I tried, tribal customs die hard.  It will take more than an extended weekend in Georgia to change my birder’s etiquette.

[Note:  I finally got my Life Harris’s Sparrow the next week, at a research conference in Colorado.  Where, by the way, the birders are friendly but do not do introductions.]