Tag Archives: birds

Birding Panama or How I Escaped the Polar Vortex

panama.coverphoto
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.

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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.

tx.ferrpygmyowl.back

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.

 

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!

daks.grayjay2

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

Kirtland’s Warbler–My Latest Book Review on 10,000 Birds

My latest book review is up on 10,000 Birds! It’s all about the Kirtland’s Warbler, a bird I have not seen yet, but hope to see in the near future. All I need is a long weekend trip to Michigan, right? The book is The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It by William Rapai. Good summer reading–not too heavy, not too light. Read the review!

Ten Reasons Why I Love New York City

A couple of weeks ago I brought chicken soup to a Facebook friend sick and miserable in a motel outside of Kennedy airport. Julie has tons of Facebook friends, and when she wrote about my soup delivery they showered me with thanks. It was a bit overwhelming. I was surprised that a lot of them said they would and could never live in New York City (or any city). One woman said she did get a different picture of the city from reading my blog, which made me realize that I actually don’t have a lot here about birding in the city.

So, here are some of the reasons why I love living in NYC, especially Queens. I’m drawing on photos I’ve taken over the past few years, so I can’t show Every Reason. I don’t have photos of the theater and I can’t convey the energy I feel when I walk around the East Village or people watch in Bryant Park. If you’re not from New York City, I hope you’ll see how possible it is to live here and still be very much a part of the natural world. You just may have to take the subway to get there.

1. Snow Geese Flying over Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. A few miles from JFK Airport as the goose flies.
JRWR: Snow Geese in Formation

2. Pink-footed Goose at Meadow Lake, a 12-minute walk from my home. Much better view than the one I got in Iceland.
Meadow Lake: Pink-Footed Goose

3. Snow. And Cardinals in the Snow.
Central Park: Northern Cardinal Stuffing Face

4. A Robin nesting in a traffic light. Shown to me by one of Central Park’s best nature photographers (thank you again, Cal).
Central Park: Robin & babies at red light

5. Great Horned Owlets almost every year in my neighborhood park. Alley Pond Park: GHOwlets

6. Family. Three generations (including me, the photographer) enjoying music in Central Park. Then, I force them to look at the birds.
Music in Central Park

7. Meadowhawks at Little Alley Pond, Queens. When you look at them, you can’t hear the cars whizzing by on the Parkway next door.
Alley: Meadowhawk

8. Monk Parakeets Building a Nest in Whitestone, a mile from where I grew up.
Whitestone: Monk Parakeets Enjoy Winter Berries

9. Bridges. Ways out, ways in. And, some of them are home to Peregrine Falcons. Brooklyn: Verrazano Bridge

10. Jamaica Bay sunsets. Look closely and you can see “the city” on the other side. This is my constant source of wonder, the juxtaposition of the natural against the man-made. Jamaica Bay NWR: Terrapin Trail, sunset

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.