28 May 2016


The month of May finds us in Iowa for a stint (I mean, not a STINT stint).  But yes, Iowa is a former home state of ours and it's been fun seeing spring migration come and go in a place with actual trees and actual warblers.

Anyway, maybe I should start with the oddest sighting we've had so far?  Yeah, in this land-locked prairie state, an amazing HARLEQUIN DUCK showed up a while back and stuck around long enough to go see it!  Downtown Waterloo?  You got it.
This species typically favors turbulent water and rocky shores of the northeast, northwest, and some in the Great Lakes (usually in winter).  Iowa, as you may surmise, is NOT where this kind of bird should be hanging out... and in May?  It just gets weirder and weirder.  

Perhaps you think of Iowa as only corn (a lot of people do).  And there IS a lot of corn... but there is a lot of other neat stuff too.  In various grasslands throughout the area, it's not hard to stumble onto species like SEDGE WREN, HENSLOW'S SPARROW, and BOBOLINK.  This grassland icterid (related to blackbirds, grackles, meadowlarks, orioles, cowbirds, etc) is an impressive migrant too; they migrate more than 12,000 miles every year to southern South America!  This one, well, it was just hanging out in an overgrown field.  Note the yellow nape and gray/white back:
Another grassland bird, this one truly abundant around here, is the DICKCISSEL.  In Iowa, you can find these while you're pumping gas at Casey's or Kum & Go (true story!).  Despite their abundance, their song is a quintessential sound of Iowa to me and one that always tells me I'm looking at grasslands.  Take a listen:
And hey, they're rather attractive too:
Another bird of open areas is the BLACK TERN and thankfully these attractive marshbirds haven't been too hard to find locally.  This photo, which doesn't show much of the tern, is fascinating to me though; you're seeing a tern banking hard to snap up the big juicy fly in the lower part of the photo.  Yum yum!
While we're in the theme of open areas, I took this photo of a MEADOW FRITILLARY while we explored a park in Grundy County.  However, you can see that it was feeling a bit shy (or windblown) and wouldn't spread out all nice-like.  Oh well.
However, the woodlands that Iowa has probably get overlooked.  We were exploring a park near Waterloo when we tucked inside the woods on this side trail which plopped us in a very picturesque setting:
The muddy and shady creek bed was a haven for NORTHERN WATERTHRUSHES of which we saw several.  The sounds of EASTERN WOOD-PEWEES and LEAST FLYCATCHERS filtered through the trees.  A short time later, this young RED FOX came up to inspect us.  It was a beautiful animal:
Lately, the sounds filtering out of the woods tend to be those of breeding species; many of the other migrants have already passed us by.  The most common woodland nesting warbler here (in my opinion) is the AMERICAN REDSTART.  Although this black-and-orange warbler has been abundant for us, this one didn't necessarily feel like perching out unobscured:
Another midwestern spring/summer highlight for me are cuckoos.  A check of a local bird sanctuary was the right move when we realized how many cuckoos were flopping about.  We ended with nearly 20 different cuckoos!  The highlight for us was seeing 3 different BLACK-BILLED CUCKOOS, the less common of the two.  At one point, we managed a tail-only view of one of them:
The tail is all you need to be able to differentiate between the two species too; BLACK-BILLED has smaller white spots on the underside while YELLOW-BILLED has much larger white spots.

We managed other views of BLACK-BILLED although my photo didn't turn out that great given the height of the bird and the harsh lighting:
And then sometimes you find birds where you don't expect to.  Here's a WILSON'S PHALAROPE that was hanging out with some CANADA GEESE on the mowed grass at a local park!
Lastly, you have to remember through all of this though that I spent my time in Iowa in the dark ages (before I started using eBird).  Subsequently, so many of my county lists and state numbers are lacking to this day because of that.  Still, there's only one direction to go and that is forward... it was time to explore some new counties!  So far, we've been able to snag more than a half dozen new ones.  I'll leave you with this updated Iowa map:

23 May 2016

Pull a U-Tern

A sizable chunk of my youth was spent on the lakefront of Lake Michigan.  When I lived in Berrien County in the southwest corner of Michigan, I was only a short 15 minute drive from the fun-filled beaches and sand dunes.  Actually, these were some of my darkest days.  As in a nice, dark tan!  I basically lived on the beach!  Ahhh.....

So, if you had told me a few days ago that I'd be back on the shore of Lake Michigan yesterday, my interest would have been piqued!  I was in Iowa, after all.

It started late in the day on Saturday when news broke of a WHITE-WINGED TERN that was found in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  Hell, I had no idea where that even was.  I googled it and saw it was a city on the west shore of Lake Michigan on the far side of Wisconsin.  But I also noticed it was a short 5 hour drive there.  But was the bird legit?  I hadn't seen photos.  THEN the photos were posted.  Augh, not only was it legit, it was beautiful!  It didn't take long at all to finalize plans for leaving the next morning for the shores of Lake Michigan.  The chase was on.

As we sped towards the rising sun in the morning, we started seeing positive reports coming in via eBird and listservs.  Things were looking good!  Either we'd get it, or we'd miss it by minutes.  Could be an epic snag... or an epic fail, we had no way of knowing.

Fast forward 5 hours... we pulled in, got our gear ready to go, and headed out to the impoundment on the north side of the Manitowoc Harbor area.  A crowd was gathering and rumors were swirling that the bird should be around still.  Here was our view of the flats:
Yep, LOTS of birds were loafing out there, mostly BONAPARTE'S GULLS, CASPIAN TERNS, and COMMON TERNS:
So we started scanning the flock of white birds for a black one with white wings.  Simple, right?  Well, I'd be lying if I said it took us more than 5 minutes to find the bird on our own!  Yep, the WHITE-WINGED TERN was loafing there amongst the hundreds of birds:
Success!  We took a deep breath in to calm our minds.  Our chase wasn't in vain.

We got to enjoy the tern through our scopes for quite a while.  It would occasionally take flight, fly out to the big lake, and disappear for a while.  But it always came back pretty quickly and would stick out like a sore thumb with the other gulls and terns.  Here's a crummy look as it flew off at one point:
This bird is, well, rare!  It's expected in places like Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.  But here in the ABA area?  Nope, it's a Code 4.  Wisconsin, funnily enough, has a record already (but from 1873.  That bird, as it so happens, was shot by Mr. Kumlien himself.)  Lucky for us, this particular WWTE showed up in the interior of the US... not something that happens very often.  You see, this species shows up on the East Coast from time to time and also western Alaska... but one hadn't been seen in the interior of the US in about 20 years.  

Oh, did I mention that we weren't alone in looking for this lost tern?  Here's the gathering of ~30 birders that were present at the scene:
In truth, there were a lot of other fascinating and subtle things out in the impoundment besides the mega rarity that had everybody "ooh"ing and "ahh"ing.  For example, there were at least 2 LITTLE GULLS yesterday including this subadult:
Although these tiny gulls breed at a few spots here in the ABA area, they're considered a Code 3 species (the same code as low-level vagrants).  It wasn't our main target but it was a fine addition to our "up-and-coming" Wisconsin lists. 

The main cohort of terns and gulls weren't shabby-looking either.  Here's a CASPIAN TERN flying by, accentuated by its red bill, black cap, and dark underside to the primaries:
But did you know that Caspian Tern is the largest tern species in the world?  If not, now you do!

Certainly not as big, although more numerous, were the COMMON TERNS that littered the beach and airspace above the impoundment.  Common indeed, they fulfilled their names that day.  Here's one zipping past:
So all in all, we were very fortunate to have this rare lifer show up a mere 5 hours from us and that it stuck around all day yesterday.  In fact, as I type this, there have been NO REPORTS of this bird today.  Uh oh!  Did we see it just in the nick of time?

20 May 2016

Openheatmap, May edition

Yes, it's one of THOSE posts.  Although I zoomed in on Texas and mapped that for my previous blog post, it's been more than a month since I last updated my nationwide eBird counties map.  Since then, I've managed to add 14 new counties (yes, mostly in Texas but also a bunch in Iowa) and almost 1,000 new county ticks.  Enjoy:

16 May 2016

Mappin' Texas

So far, 2016 has been very kind to my Texas list.  I've been there 3 times this year and because 2 of those were pretty in-depth trips, I've managed to score 82 state birds so far this year.

Also, Texas has now taken over my #2 spot for biggest state list.  That spot was held by Michigan, my longtime home state, but it was inevitable for a state like Texas to overtake it (and it's no surprise that California remains in my #1 spot).

Anyway, I went into openheatmap and created a map of Texas filled in with my eBird totals.  You can see that I now have county lists for 58 Texan counties... but that's only 23% of the counties in the state!  Clearly I have a lot more work in terms of spatial coverage!

Anyway, enjoy.

11 May 2016

Show Me Missouri

In the days after my return from Texas, I've been focusing my birding on a much smaller area.  In fact, Ashley and I are usually content to bird the property we're on in northeast Missouri.

At this point, I'm wondering if we should name it "The Preserve" or something.  It's about 18 acres; a third of it in mature forest and the other two-thirds in grassland.  Together, including some of the bordering fields and scrubland, it's lush and productive birding!

For example, May 8 turned out to be an epic day for us.  We got ready for our morning walk with our eBird app open and ready for mad business.  The problem was that as soon as we exited the house, we were completely blown away by the number of birds singing.  It was quite difficult to single out any of the songs.  Such a horrible problem, huh?

We picked our way through the songs and it was evident early on that this was going to crush our previous daily high-count for this spot.  By the time 9 AM had rolled around, we had already reached 70 species.  We were curious... could we reach 80 for the day?  We kept birding.

This male BLUE GROSBEAK helped our tally.  It was a bit of a surprise too; we had only seen one here once before.
Another first-rate migrant to have around are the plain-colored GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSHES.  Generally harder to come by than other thrushes, it's always nice to have a few of these skulkers lurking in the shadows.  Thankfully, they often give their presence away with their distinctive "veeer" call notes.  Of course, photographing one of these buried in the brush can be anything but easy:
Tough to tell what it is?  The key, for me at least, is the noticeable lack of an eyering (Swainson's Thrushes have bold, buffy eyerings).

It's not an understatement to say that our yard big day was made possible by warblers.  In fact, we eventually ended the day with 23 different warbler species!  One we saw that day was the locally abundant KENTUCKY WARBLER.  Although they're common (there are 4-6 territories surrounding the house), when you want to snap a pic, they can be real gits.  This was the best I could do in the shadows:
Speaking of KEWAs, here's a caption challenge.  Is there anything better than just a simple "BOING!":
Another cracking warbler(ish) species to have around us every day is the YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT.  This is another shy species that can be rather reclusive at times but every once in a while, they'll come out to have a look around.  Note the yellow breast, white spectacles, and large bill:
It's hard to assess which is the more abundant sparrow on the property: CHIPPING or FIELD.  Either way, the former is much more obliging!
Anyway, we ended up birding for 5 hours on the property that day.  In the end, not only did we reach 80 species... we topped 90 (and all without a single shorebird or duck species)!  I'm not sure if/when we'll ever break that record but I'm guessing it won't be for a while.

With the warmer temps of spring comes an increasing variety of butterflies.  As many of you know, this has been an increasingly time-consuming hobby of mine for the last 8 years or so.  And yes, "The Preserve" has been pumping out surprises in the bug category too.  It started with this RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAK, only my second one ever:
Although not really rare, we're very near the northern limit to their range; it looks like there is only one Iowa record (seen here).

The markings on the undersides of PECK'S SKIPPERS are pretty distinctive.  This one perched up in gorgeous light and I'm really happy with how it turned out:
Another distinctive skipper, and an abundant one at that, is the ZABULON SKIPPER.  We have been seeing large numbers of these lately (the word "swarm" came to mind).  Here's a male perched on some veg in one of the forest clearings:
Dwarfing the two previous skippers is the SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER.  Although the distinctive underside isn't very visible in this picture, it's not too difficult to ID them based on size alone:
The most abundant butterfly species here right now is the EASTERN TAILED-BLUE.  Looking at the below photo, it should be obvious why it has "tailed" and "blue" in the name:
Ok, so once in a while we DO leave the property and foray out into the wilds of rural Missouri.  Yesterday, for example, we worked on our Marion County lists and visited Elmslie Memorial Conservation Area.  It was a pretty cool place although we probably didn't get there quite early enough.  We managed 53 species in about an hour with highlights including YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, SWAINSON'S THRUSHES, 13 warbler species including LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH, GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER, and BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER.  With that recent visit, Ashley and I are atop the all-time Top 100 list for that county (but the lack of eBird users there moots that point).

Afterwards we did some random exploring by driving backroads which yielded county birds like BLUE GROSBEAK, ORCHARD ORIOLE, GRASSHOPPER SPARROW, and HENSLOW'S SPARROW.  The DICKCISSELS were quite common as well:
On a different day, we visited Steyermark Conservation Area near Hannibal (checklist here).  The highlight for us was, without a doubt, two CERULEAN WARBLERS singing from the treetops.  It had been 3 years since either one of us had seen this uncommon species so it was an especially nice surprise to stumble on some so close to home.

Steyermark CA also had loads of other gems like 12 warbler species including LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH, GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER, BLUE-WINGED WARBLER, MOURNING WARBLER, and YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER.  And, as one would guess, some ACADIAN FLYCATCHERS as well:
This large and green Empidonax flycatcher is found most often in mature deciduous forests of the east.  I read somewhere that this species has never been seen walking/hopping/or even perched on the ground.  Can that be true?  If so, how fascinating!

09 May 2016

Big Bend and west Texas -- Part 3

After we departed Big Bend, we headed north for the Davis Mountains.  The Davis Mountains are located near Fort Davis (after which they are named) and are volcanic in origin.  The vegetation, like many of the other sky island ranges of west Texas and Arizona, includes dry montane grasslands in the lower elevations and pine-oak woodlands higher up.  The key to that sentence is where I mention the dry grasslands!  Yes, our goal for the Davis Mountains was to look for MONTEZUMA QUAIL.

Although they can be secretive at the best of times, most of our group were eventually successful in finally seeing a couple of quail slinking through some grass the following morning.  However, pictures of those didn't materialize.

Although our visit to the Davis Mountains was brief, we added a slew of new species for the trip including PHAINOPEPLA, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, BLUE GROSBEAK, GREEN-TAILED TOWEE, and another ZONE-TAILED HAWK.

Our next birding stop was Lake Balmorhea in Reeves County, a true oasis in an otherwise dry landscape.  After spending many days in the desert, we enjoyed a new and abundant variety of waterbirds and shorebirds.  For example, we stumbled on this WHIMBREL straightaway:
This is actually a really nice sighting for this part of Texas.  Still to this day, this is the only WHIM eBird record in western Texas this year.  In fact, there are probably fewer than 10 records in this part of Texas.

More expected in this region are AMERICAN AVOCETS and BLACK-NECKED STILTS; here's one of the latter hanging out in one of the marshes:
In the end, we added all sorts of new trip birds there.  Highlights included LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER, SNOWY PLOVER, LEAST SANDPIPER, WHITE-FACED IBIS, GOLDEN EAGLE, RING-BILLED GULL, and 3 GREBE SPECIES (EARED, WESTERN, and CLARK'S).

We spent our last leg of the trip at Neal's Lodges in Concan (this is about an hour and a half west of San Antonio).  This area, known as the Hill Country, is well-known for a couple of things... GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLERS, BLACK-CAPPED VIREOS, and sometimes TROPICAL PARULA.  Eager to track down some new and exciting birds for the trip, we ventured to Lost Maples SNA one morning and fell completely in love with what it had to offer.  

First and foremost, it's a superb place for the rare and endangered GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER which we eventually got nice looks at through the scope.  This species nests only in juniper-oak woodlands and in only one state... Texas!  

We had a nice variety of other species too though.  Think of a place where CANYON WRENS mix with CAROLINA WRENS, where LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSHES mix with SCOTT'S ORIOLES, where a GREAT KISKADEE can be seen while you're listening to ACADIAN FLYCATCHERS, where nesting YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS mix with HUTTON'S VIREOS.  You get the idea!  It was truly amazing and unique birding experience.

The bugs weren't half bad either!  Here's a GRAY HAIRSTREAK that was quite a stunner in the sun:
Back at Neal's Lodges, we eventually tracked down another target, a Code 3 TROPICAL PARULA that has been on territory there this spring.  See if you can spot it in this photo:
The lodges themselves were pretty fascinating.  Behind the restaurant were a series of hummingbird feeders that almost always had flocks of BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRDS in attendance:
They were tame too; Jo was able to hold the feeder at close range and enjoy the spectacle in an up-close-and-personal way!
At one point, a couple of us ventured to the bathroom area because there was this interesting moth sitting on the door:
Although I'm no expert, I went ahead and snapped a picture.  Turns out, it's a Painted Lichen Moth (thanks to my friend, Aaron, for his id help).

There was one particular butterfly that really enjoyed the area behind the restaurant too.  It's a TAWNY EMPEROR:
You can see the lack of black eyespots on the forewing which the similar Hackberry Emperor would show.

During one of our afternoon siesta breaks, I wandered the grounds and had a nice talk with this BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER.  Note that the rufous down the middle of the tail reaches the tip (instead of having a dark tip like Ash-throated):
This species belongs to the Myiarchus genus along with species like Great Crested, Ash-throated, Dusky-capped, and many others from farther south.  However, this species has two distinct subspecies that can be found here in the US.  First, the BCFLs of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico are Myiarchus tyrannulus magister and they have a longer, thicker bill than other races.  The race that ranges into southern Texas is Myiarchus trannulus cooperi and they're smaller overall with a smaller bill.

I stumbled on this butterfly on that same afternoon stroll.  It wasn't until a bit later that I realized it was actually a lifer for me, an OAK HAIRSTREAK (Satyrium favonius):
Before we knew it, our last full day was upon us!  We loaded up once more and headed out for some morning birding.  On our way to our first birding stop, the first van spotted this RINGED KINGFISHER on a power line!
This species, the largest of our kingfishers here in North America, ranges into south Texas and we were about as far north as you can expect to find them.  But did you know that this species ranges south to the southern tip of South America?  An interesting notion considering they're limited to the warm, tropical regions of the US.

Farther down the road, we enjoyed an overload of southern prairie/scrub species like DICKCISSEL, NORTHERN BOBWHITE, SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER, and even some FIELD and GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS.

Here's a NORTHERN BOBWHITE that not only showed itself, but sat contently on a fence.  We rolled up on it smooth like a Cadillac and I did a Nikonized drive-by shooting.  BANG!  (It didn't mind a bit):
It's hard to dislike any bird with a tail as crazy as this!  This SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER chose the wrong kind of fence to hide behind; I can still focus on you!
Although our tour was all but complete, we save a special event for our very last night of the tour.  We ventured to the Frio bat cave for the nightly mass-exodus of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats!  Yes, you might not be interested... or you might even be creeped out.  But let me say that it's really quite remarkable; I had no idea what I was missing.

Here's a view of the cave, a low, oblong fissure:
You can see the bats were starting to stream out.  Pretty soon, the stream of exiting bats was so mind-boggling that you kind of just had to stand in awe and look up:
They formed these dark pulsing lines into the distance, super highways of millions of bats.  Yes, millions.  It's been estimated that 10-12 million of these bats exit the cave every night.

This spectacle doesn't just attract the attention of humans though!  There is a resident RED-TAILED HAWK that has perfected the art of picking bats out of the mix in mid-flight:
We watched this hawk catch several bats and with a pretty high success rate too!
After it became too dark to see the bats, we switched to birding mode again and enjoyed some nightbirds on the way out like CHUCK-WILL'S-WIDOW, COMMON POORWILL, and EASTERN SCREECH-OWL.

Sadly though, our tour had come to an end.  We had enjoyed a wide range of habitats throughout Texas and with that came a wide range of birds.  We managed a respectable ~214 species for the trip including great success with our targets.  Thanks to those who made this such a fun trip!

07 May 2016

Big Bend and west Texas -- Part 2

The big day was finally here.  Many, if not all, of the birders on our trip came hoping to see the COLIMA WARBLER.  After all, Big Bend National Park in west Texas is the ONLY place in the ABA area that birders can hope to see this denizen of oak-pine canyons.  The problem is... you gotta hike for it!

Yes indeed, if you've seen this bird, you're in an elite bunch of birders that were willing to make the trek (some people refer to it as a "death march") up to roughly 6000 feet in Big Bend National Park.

Below you can see our route; it may look like gibberish now... but believe me, when you hike it, you are tuned in to exactly where you are (and how much farther to go!):
We were ready though.  After a quick breakfast in the dark, we set out at about dawn and started the long, gentle approach to the ridge.  It was a cool morning though so we all appreciated not being overheated!

We took the climb slowly but it was hard to go fast when we had scenery like this behind us!
Besides, we saw lots of fascinating things on the way up.  For example, here is Echinocereus triglochidiatus, a kind of hedgehog cactus.  Apparently it has several common names such as Claretcup, Kingcup cactus, or Mojave mound cactus.  Whatever name you choose, it was quite vivid even in the morning shade:
The Pinnacles Trail soon started getting a bit more serious though and we focused our attention on the terrain ahead:
We were approaching the ridge but we hadn't heard even a peep out of our target warbler.  Hmm. However, Chris soon called out that he heard a singing Colima ahead!  We scurried forward and, lo and behold, a COLIMA WARBLER was singing at eye-level!  Success!  All 15 of us that made the hike were looking at this Mexican specialty bird of Big Bend:
You can see the white eyering, orange cap, and yellow rump/undertail.  It perched there and sang for many minutes.  We were all on cloud nine... and at about the right elevation for clouds too.

So when 15 happy birders get together on a mountainside to celebrate a lifer, why not snap a picture?!  Here's our fantastic group:
After the bird moved on, we all had to decide what to do.  Some folks turned back towards home while others, myself included, continued up and over the ridge to see what Boot Spring had to offer.  Once we crested the ridge and started down the other side, it was starting to be a nice, warm day:
Once we arrived at the pleasant (and shaded!) Boot Spring, we sat down for a quick lunch break.  However, we were rather distracted!  We found several more COLIMA WARBLERS and a few that even perched for some photos:
This one looked down at the emptiness beneath it and seemed to say "Woah, I hope I don't fall":
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Boot Spring area was a calling DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER that we heard when we arrived.  Although we looked for it, we never could find it for photos (it's a pretty rare species for there).

We saw several other species in the area though that call that particular island-in-the-sky home.  We had a couple of CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHERS, a PAINTED REDSTART or two, HUTTON'S VIREOS, and even some BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS:
The Blue-throateds are brutes, too.  On average, they are our largest hummingbird species in the US!  We also had fleeting glimpses of another species of hummingbird that can be found in the mountains there, the small BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD.  However, they didn't stay still for anyone.

Before long though, it was time to descend.  Because this part of the hike occurs in the heat of the day, we didn't spend a lot of time sight-seeing.  I did pause for this BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER though; it looked surprised that hikers were out in the heat:
In the end, I really enjoyed our time at Big Bend.  For example, the rich light from our last evening illuminated the mountains surrounding the Chisos Basin where we stayed:
The next morning was our last at the park but we wouldn't leave without... you guessed it, more birding!  Indeed, we visited a different oasis "on our way out".  The vibrant VERMILION FLYCATCHERS were abundant as always including this gleaming beacon perched up high in some mesquite:
As we said our goodbyes to the desert, this GREAT HORNED OWL was one of the last to see us off:
So coming up next... part 3 where we venture to the Davis Mountains and the Hill Country.  Stay tuned!