31 August 2017

Arizona: Put some "Second Spring" in your step

You know the drill... I'm here trying to catch up!  I have a few days at home before I'm whisked away to co-lead another Field Guides tour so I thought I'd drop in a few photos from the Arizona tour John Coons and I ran in late July.

Wait... Arizona in the middle of summer?  Are you crazy?!  Not quite (but I might be heading there).  The "Second Spring" tour, as you'll often hear it referred to, focuses on southeastern Arizona during the monsoon season which is marked by thunderstorms that rejuvenate the dry deserts and can turn them into lush green landscapes.

How exactly does that work?  Simply put, the monsoon season is a shift of winds.  Typically the winds that blow from the west and southwest into that part of the state are dry.  However, in July and August, the winds shift to the south and southeast which brings up moisture from the Gulf of California.  That moisture, coupled with the heat of summer, fuels the monsoon thunderstorms.

What that means for birds is a new bounty of food and shelter.  Many species actually begin singing and end up breeding during this lush period of the summer.  The grasslands turn into a gorgeous vistas full of singing birds.  It's spring for them... a second spring.

I flew into Tucson a bit early to do some scouting.  We visited the De Anza Trail where I hoped to find a brand new ABA bird... my all-time nemesis, the ROSE-THROATED BECARD.  This time, the nemesis fell... and HARD.  Check it out:
Pretty amped from that success, it was pretty easy to stay psyched for our incoming clients.  We birded near Tucson our first afternoon and came face-to-face with some gorgeous desert species like this BLACK-THROATED SPARROW:
Another bird you're likely to see in that part of the US is the tiny and scaly-looking INCA DOVE:
The grasslands I mentioned above really are beautiful during this time of year.  Here's the view early one morning just downslope from Portal:
Those grasslands host species like CRISSAL THRASHER, SCALED QUAIL, CASSIN'S SPARROW, and BOTTERI'S SPARROW, the latter being a regional specialty.  However, it's not until the monsoons hit that the Botteri's become obvious as they sing from low perches.  Here's one doing just that:
Of course, there is a downside of the monsoon season... the unpredictable storms that can dump huge amounts of water in a short amount of time!  Here is a road that is normally dry but became an impassable river after a storm!
It wouldn't be a tour of southern Arizona without spending time looking for ELEGANT TROGONS!  John, a long-time resident of AZ and our lead guide, had their locations dialed in.  Beautiful looks were had by all!
We spent an evening at Mary Jo's feeders in Ash Canyon, a must-stop place if you're ever in the area.  Her feeders were hosting a couple of the rare LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRDS much to the delight of all the birders present:
Note that the name is "Lucifer" and not "Lucifer's".  It's not named AFTER someone (or anything religious), it's named after the word lucifer which, in Latin, means "light bringing" or "morning star".  Clearly the hummingbird is an attractive, light-bringing bird!

Although Field Guides has a tour specifically targeting the nightbirds of Arizona, we poked around for nightbirds on this tour too.  We ended up with a nice collection of owls including this WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL in Miller Canyon:
In the above photo, note the pale bill.  Compare that to the dark bill on this WESTERN SCREECH-OWL near Portal:
If you've seen a MEXICAN CHICKADEE in the US, you almost certainly saw it in the Chiricahuas of southeastern Arizona.  This regional specialty put on a great show for our tour and we saw many high up in the Chiricahuas:
Spending a fair bit of time leading tours in Arizona this year, I've heard about one species in particular over and over again... one quail that jumps to mind when thinking of targets.  The secretive (and often hard to spot) MONTEZUMA QUAIL.  Some people have looked for these for years without luck.  Our tour, I must say, was tuned in because we found these cryptic quail 5 different times in less than 2 hours!  Here's one of the 9 birds we spotted in Cave Creek:
It has a pretty intricate pattern on the head, huh?

It might not be a stop-press kind of bird but we spent a lot of time around the WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES that call the dry Arizonan mountains home.  Once or twice, they perched up nicely within reach of our cameras:
Another regional specialty of Arizona, and a target one is likely to have when you visit, is the THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD.  There has been a pair nesting in Portal lately and we connected with the pair one morning:
 Let's talk Greek for a second...

"Phain" = Shine or shining
"Peplum" = Robe

What do you get?  The PHAINOPEPLA is a silky-flycatcher with a very sleek-looking robe, one could say:
Perhaps one of the most limited breeding ranges of any bird species that nests in the US belongs to the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW.  In fact, most years birders have to take the bumpy road out to the remote California Gulch to hope to see them.  We made the drive and were rewarded with excellent views of this AZ specialty:
In recent years, southern Arizona has hosted a couple of breeding pairs of BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHERS.  This species, which can be completely absent from the US in some years, performed well for us and we ended up seeing at least 2 different birds.  Here's one from Montosa Canyon:
The rarest species we saw was this buffy flycatcher high in the Huachucas:
This aptly-named gem is a TUFTED FLYCATCHER and it's only one of a few that have been found in the US.  If you follow the ABA codes of ranking rarities... it's a Code 5, essentially the highest rarity ranking possible.  Lucky for us, a pair or two have been in Arizona in recent years and we caught up to one of them much to the delight of everyone present.

When one thinks of BROWN PELICANS, they often think of them soaring along the coast of an ocean or something.  This one, however, had found a sewage treatment pond near the small town of Amado.  I can't imagine there was a ton of food for it there... which might explain why it was sitting on the bank asleep:
The forests of these southern Arizonan "Sky Islands" host so many other cool creatures too.  Here's a BEYER'S SCARAB, a huge species of beetle that is found in Mexico and southern Arizona:
Not to creep anyone out or anything... but how cool is this view of the Skull Eyes caves in Cave Creek?  Pretty eerie, huh?
Anyway, it was a fun tour filled with awesome birds, nice scenery, and a fabulous show of the monsoons of Arizona!  Props go out to John, as always, for his expertise in the area.

You can find out more about this particular tour on our webpage by clicking here.  Do it!  The dates are already posted for our 2018 and 2019 Second Spring tours.

22 August 2017

The Great American Eclipse - 2017

Even if you were living under a rock... you would have noticed something weird going on. 

Of course you've probably heard about the total solar eclipse that happened yesterday, August 21 across much of the US.  Ashley and I were lucky to be home in Missouri because the "zone of totality" sliced right through the state.  If we drove south a little ways, not only could we see some of the eclipse, we'd have one of the best seats in the country for it.

We ventured south... then west towards Columbia but then the doppler showed THIS:
Hmm, that weather to the west did NOT look conducive to skywatching!  We turned tail and fled back to the east on I-70 for a ways before heading south towards the town of Fulton.  In the above map you can also see the zone of totality with the blue line running through the center of it.  We ended up extremely close to that blue line which ensured some of the longest views of the total eclipse.

We pulled off, had a rural road (complete with corn fields) completely to ourselves.  Before long, we noticed the light getting more and more eerie.  It wasn't like the sun was setting... it was more as if a giant spaceship had flown in overhead like in Independence Day or something.

We looked up during the totality phase and literally gasped.  It was gorgeous:
We also made an eBird checklist during the eclipse but it didn't have much on it to begin with.  We did notice that during the couple minutes of totality that things got REALLY quiet.  Somewhere distantly a Northern Cardinal chipped.  The crickets were going.  Eerie stuff.

16 August 2017

Newly Found Land?

Hardly.  The Dorset culture settled in Newfoundland 4,000 years ago.  Hold on, hold on... I'm getting ahead of myself.

HELLO EVERYONE.... I'm alive.

It seems to be tradition now to start my posts with "Wow, I'm REALLY behind".  In truth, it HAS been a busy guiding season and, yes, I AM really behind in posting to my blog.

I left off last time after guiding in Maine.  Well, I was lucky to return to the northeast, this time to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (our Field Guides tour page here).

We started around St. John's, the capital of the province, where we snagged a few oddballs like this TUFTED DUCK that oversummered with a tame flock of ducks.  This species is typically found overseas in places like Europe and Asia.  This one was keeping an eye on me though:
We drove out to Cape Spear (the easternmost point in all of the US or Canada) where it was a beautiful sunny day.  Here's our group looking east.  The next land in that direction?  Ireland!
Although we were in Newfoundland in the summer, we still managed to find an ABA Code 3 BLACK-HEADED GULL in St. John's (they're fairly common there in winter though).  At one point it flew right by us...
One of the enjoyable aspects of this tour was being in the breeding range of a variety of warblers.  Although BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER is a fairly widespread species, and one you probably know well, we enjoyed getting to see these quite nicely:
We tallied some nice finches too including PINE GROSBEAK, COMMON REDPOLL, PINE SISKIN, PURPLE FINCH, and some RED CROSSBILLS:
These aren't your average crossbills though... these are the Type 8 birds, L. c. percna, an endangered subspecies that is probably endemic to the island of Newfoundland.  I say "probably" because, although they've never been proven away from Newfoundland, it's thought they might wander to Anticosti Island in nearby Quebec.  Either way, we were happy to see this uncommon finch!

Being in Newfoundland was cool and all but it wasn't until we found ourselves on proper tundra that I felt like we were TRULY up north.  The reason is simple... the tundra was hosting a couple of northern specialties that morning like CARIBOU and this WILLOW PTARMIGAN!
Before this, I had only seen this species of ptarmigan in Alaska!  It put on a great show too, as you can see, flying in right next to us.  This would end up being one of the major highlights of the entire trip.

This tour was a good one for northern terns too.  Here's an ARCTIC TERN that spent several minutes flying alongside our vehicle:
Speaking of northern specialties, it's hard to go wrong with the wheezy-sounding BOREAL CHICKADEE, right?  You can see the brown cap nicely on this bird near Placentia:
I can't imagine a better place in all of North America to see NORTHERN GANNETS than at the Cape St. Mary's colony.  We found ourselves face-to-face with 20,000 of these large seabirds, one of the largest gatherings in the world.  It was truly amazing!
Tucked away from the gannets, this RAZORBILL also was catching some rays at Cape St. Mary's.  It's a sharp-looking alcid, that's for sure:
This tour includes a ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.  Being on such a big boat, it's uncommon for people to get too woozy.  I was thankful of this especially since I was on the lookout for a tiny, dark seabird.  The LEACH'S STORM-PETREL had been at the top of my "most wanted" list for years and this ferry ride is known to have them.  So imagine my glee when I spotted one of these little dudes cruising along just above the wave tops:
Woo hoo!  As you can see on the sidebar on the right side of this webpage, it's one of only 2 new ABA birds so far for me this year.

Once on land in Nova Scotia, we hit the ground running and saw specialties like GREAT CORMORANT and even some NELSON'S SPARROWS singing from right in front of us.  Our lodge was glorious too... the grounds hosted WINTER WRENS, HERMIT THRUSHES, and even this male BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER!
Nearby, the lush, more southerly-feeling forests hosted a whole new range of birds like BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLERS, NORTHERN PARULAS, and EVENING GROSBEAKS.  We even found this BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO singing!
This species is fairly scarce and one you're not likely to bump into too often.  We soaked it up, watching it through our scopes as it sat and sang.  Exceptional!

This MOURNING WARBLER also put on a fantastic show for our participants.  Although usually secretive, this one came out and sang from a perch for several minutes.  Here's a scope view of what we were looking at:
I should mention that we take note of all the mammals we see on tours as well.  Naturally, being up in this part of the world, we were keen to see some MOOSE.  We did just that, tallying 8 or so.  Here's one that's, you know, belly deep in a lake:
Staying in the mammal theme, this GRAY SEAL looked pretty pleased with herself too, getting the rock-top spot!
Of course,  I couldn't limit myself to just birds and mammals either!  Here's a FOUR-SPOTTED SKIMMER, a species of dragonfly, that posed nicely for a bit:
Even the range-restricted SHORT-TAILED SWALLOWTAILS were out in force:
And, ok, you caught me... I'd snap photos of non-living things too once in a while.  For example, here's an iceberg off the east coast of Newfoundland.  I think this was my first East Coast berg!
All in all, it was a fun trip and I'd like to thank the lead guide, Chris Benesh, for his expertise in birding these spots.  As it turns out, I'm slated to join him again for this tour next year.  Interested in joining?  Visit our Field Guides webpage for this tour here.

Cheers!  Stay tuned for more -ahem- catch-up posts....

29 June 2017

Some mo' in MO

You know, I've been so preoccupied with photos from tours that I haven't put much time into sharing photos from home.  How about I fix that here and now.

It's kind of an interesting time around here in Missouri, to be honest.  Sure, spring migration IS a distant memory and most of the breeding species are quiet for much of the day.  However, it's in this month, June, that you can start to see the first "fall" migrants (usually shorebirds).  For example, here's a WILLET that Ashley found while we were out birding this morning at Mark Twain Lake (checklist):
We were pretty happy with this sighting; it was our first ever for Missouri (and kind of an overdue need for us).

Speaking of Mark Twain Lake (a reservoir in northeast Missouri), there's been a COMMON MERGANSER there at the dam that never seems to migrate north like he should.  This is the second summer he's been around so I think he's probably permanently injured and can't migrate.  Here's a terrible photo of him perched on a distant shore:
In this part of Missouri, we have tons of PURPLE MARTINS around.  Here's one that posed briefly in downtown Hannibal:
Another common species, the BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, is found in many of the forested habitats around here.  In fact, we have them in the yard.  Here's one in April from one of the better forests near town (checklist):
Although not as common as the above two species, BLUE GROSBEAKS are definitely around the scrubby habitats.  In fact, I heard one singing from the yard a few days ago.  Here's a female from earlier this summer:
We feel fortunate to live in the company of NORTHERN BOBWHITES, a type of quail.  In fact, we sometimes hear them calling from the yard.  Here's one that Ashley photographed:
Of course, one of the bests sounds of summer come from the lonely gulping caws of the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO during the hot and humid afternoons.  Here's a pic of two of these slinky cuckoos (oddly enough, rather low and in more open habitat than usual... they were probably migrants):
We have done a tiny bit of traveling within Missouri to target some easy state birds.  For example, here's our first WESTERN KINGBIRD; I guess the ones near Columbia are shy and won't show me their faces?  Lame.
The pugnacious EASTERN KINGBIRDS though, they don't mind!
One of the main targets for our wander to the southern reaches of the state was for this bland but rare breeding warbler, the SWAINSON'S WARBLER.  It took some effort but we eventually heard and then saw one:
For reference, this was only the 4th time I had seen this species in my life.

While down there, we took some time to enjoy the many SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHERS that ended up being abundant:
We even snagged a few other state birds like SWAINSON'S HAWK and this BLACK VULTURE:
Back home in northeast Missouri... we've enjoyed the many HENSLOW'S SPARROWS around.  Here's a screen-capture of all the eBird records this June.  All of the pins you see, 10 different spots, are from Ashley and myself:
Although I haven't worked on photographing these uncommon sparrows lately, we really have enjoyed stopping at good-looking fields and, more often than not, finding them!

Missouri is the first place I've lived where MISSISSIPPI KITES are in the mix of breeding species.  Although we have yet to see one from the yard, they're findable over by the Mississippi River.  Here are a couple of shots of this aerial predator:

Although I was away on tour, that didn't stop Ashley from finding a LEAST BITTERN at Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Pike County.  Thankfully it was still around when I got back and we managed to sneak a look at it:
Better yet, we took notice when a pair of BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCKS was reported between us and St. Louis.  Wow, that's a quality bird for this part of the Midwest!  We decided to chase them and, lucky for us, we found them right away sleeping up in a tree (as this species often does).  Here's an iPhone photo we took through the scope:
The warbler diversity around northeast Missouri isn't half bad during the summer.  For example, a species we bump into rather often (including on the property) is the PRAIRIE WARBLER:
One of the more uncommon warblers around is the BLUE-WINGED WARBLER; here's one that may have attempted to breed here on the property (I haven't actually heard him in a while):
Thankfully, the YELLOW-BREASTED CHATS are common and vocal as ever.  Here's one in the yard:
It's a close call, deciding which we hear more often from the yard: chats or KENTUCKY WARBLERS.  I think the latter wins; we hear this species every single day even from our bedroom window (actually, I'm listening to one as I type this).  Here's one of the territorial males we have:
Although we have Kentuckys around, we don't ever seem to have nesting OVENBIRDS on the property.  No matter, we can find this streaked warbler in other nearby forests:
One of the highlights of the summer season for me are the thunderstorms.  Why?  Well, take a look!  Here's a photo from the yard one evening!  What a gorgeous sky.
I haven't had the opportunity to spend much time with butterflies these days but did enjoy an encounter with this BANDED HAIRSTREAK here on the property.  A nice-looking butterfly and not one I see often:
Anyway, that's all for now.  My next post will probably be highlighting our Field Guides tour to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  Until then, get outside!