Monday, November 17, 2014

Enjoying the South Texas Specialties in the Rio Grande Valley

Rob writes: A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to lead field trips during the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Birding Festival. I always love any opportunity to bird in the RGV and this trip was fantastic as always!

My trip started out with leading four days of field trips for the festival. I got to visit some of my favorite birding locations in the RGV as well as a place I had never visited, a very cool private ranch north of Harlingen called El Canelo. Although it rained for the first two days of the festival, there were plenty of birds around and we all made the most of the bad weather and found lots of birds anyway!

After the festival, Stephanie and I spent a couple of extra days relaxing and birding out on South Padre Island. It was great to have a couple of slower paced days to recover after birding like crazy during the festival! It also allowed us to spend more time taking photos of all of the awesome birds that we had been watching all week.

Although it was very cloudy, we did manage to capture a couple nice sunrise shots one morning on South Padre Island.
The Convention Center on South Padre Island is a great place to work
on photographing terns in flight, like this Forster's Tern.
This Osprey flew a bit to close for the 400mm lens I was using.
While on the way to Laguna Atascosa NWR, we spotted a pair of Harris's Hawks. They remained perched until a pick up truck went flying by and I was able to capture a few images as they took off!
Stephanie photographed this Green Jay while we were birding at Laguna Atascosa.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are common throughout the RGV but I find that Estero Llano Grande State Park is a great place to find some that are close enough for photography.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Spruce Grouse in the UP

A male Spruce Grouse
I guess the best way to describe it is laziness.  There are a few reliable locations for Spruce Grouse within twenty minutes of Whitefish Point but, it took me about two and a half months to go watch them.  The grouse didn't disappoint; within a few minutes at the first location, I had found a group of 12 along the road. The highlight was watching an aggressively displaying male.

I wasn't really looking for Spruce Grouse at my second stop (even though it is a historically good location for them) but, a male popped up on the side of the road and gave some great views.  The light was also much better which made for a marginally better photo.

It was a little dark for photography at my first stop, but you can get the idea
of the experience (even if you can't see the birds well).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Whitefish Point: Some Boreal Highlights

Eric writes: It has been an interesting couple weeks at Whitefish Point.  Many irruptive species have made their way to and past the point.  The biggest highlight was a Northern Hawk Owl that spent half of a day at the point.  I was able to watch it for a couple minutes as it successfully hunted.  "Winter" finches have also shown up in good numbers.  Hundreds of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins have been around on many days and a handful of Evening and Pine Grosbeaks as well as Bohemian Waxwings have been seen.  A couple Northern Shrikes have also provided lots of entertainment on slow waterbird days.

A male Evening Grosbeak about to come down to the feeders.

A female Evening Grosbeak.  The highest daily total of Evening Grosbeaks
has been 25.

Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, and an Evening Grosbeak that looks like a giant.

A juvenile Northern Shrike that spent a day at the point.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On to Canopy Lodge and Many New Birds

Rob writes: After an extremely exciting morning of birding along the road to Canopy Tower, think ant swarm and a Crested Owl, we were ready to head on to Canopy Lodge about two hours away in El Valle. (You can read about our time at Canopy Tower here) This property sits at a higher elevation than Canopy Tower and offers a huge variety of birds that you just don't have to opportunity to see in the lower elevations of Panama.

The drive from Canopy Tower to Canopy Lodge was beautiful and the scenery certainly made the drive seem much shorter than two hours. As we pulling into Canopy Lodge, we were greeted by our guide and friend Eliecer. Although lunch was ready for us, we did stop to look at a few birds along the way and picked up a few lifers!

The forest surrounds you while staying at Canopy Lodge.

This is the main building at Canopy Lodge. It's a wonderful place to sit and watch many birds!

The rooms at Canopy Lodge are huge and very comfortable!
During lunch, we were lucky to have some time to chat with Raul Arias de Para and his family. Raul is the visionary that created and owns all of the Canopy Family properties. It was wonderful to hear his stories about how everything came together when he started Canopy Tower. Before we knew it, it was time to head off and do our first serious birding around Canopy Lodge.

Over the next few days, we birded at a wide variety of elevations from the beach all the way up to the cloud forests. We had 203 species during our 3.5 days of birding at the Canopy Lodge including 29 lifers for me!

Here are a few of our favorite photos from our time at Canopy Lodge. Photography was a little difficult here since we had cloudy weather for most of our trip.

Barred Antshrikes were very common in many of the birding areas that we visited.

While birding in the Pacific Lowlands, we found a huge group of
Fork-tailed Flycatchers! I think we could have spent all day photographing them.

Rufous Motmots are regularly seen around the Canopy
Lodge property. This photo was take from our room's deck.

Rufous-capped Warblers are one of the most common species in this area.

One of the target species when birding in the Pacific Lowlands is the Yellow-crowned
Parrot. Luckily, several of them perched and gave us great scope views!

Another target in the lowlands is Yellow-headed Vulture. Several
of them passed low overhead while we were birding in this area.
If you think that Panama sounds like an awesome birding desination and someplace you'd like to visit, consider joining me on our Sabrewing Nature Tours 2015 Panamanian birding adventure! You can learn all about the trip by following this link. Panama is my favorite birding destination that I have visited so far and I hope to get to show it to many of you in person!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Beginning of Our Panamanian Adventure: Canopy Tower

From the time I started birding, other birders have been telling me about all of the amazing birding locations and lodges all over the world. There are many places that I've dreamt of visiting but none more so than Canopy Tower. The Tower has always fascinated me, not just for birding but from a historical perspective as well. Not only is the Canopy Tower in the former US Canal Zone in Panama, it's also inside an old US Air Force radar tower!

Owner Raul Arias de Para purchased the radar facility in 1996 and set out to turn it into an incredible eco-lodge. You can learn more about Raul here. What he ended up creating is one of the top birding destinations in the entire world. You can read more about the creation of Canopy Tower here.

As we traveled down to Panama a couple of weeks ago, I could hardly contain my excitement of seeing the Tower in person and having time to bird in this wonderful country for the first time. We arrived late in the day and stayed at a hotel near the airport for our first night. I woke up early the next morning and somewhat impatiently waited for the driver from Canopy Tower to pick us up. To get to Canopy Tower from the airport, you must drive straight though Panama City. We were surprised to find that Panama City is huge! We quickly left the city behind and watched as we entered the incredible rain forest within Soberania National Park.

As we twisted our way up the entrance road to the Tower, our excitement built. We finally came around one last corner and there it was! Our friend Jenn, who works for Canopy Tower met us as we got out of the van and welcomed us to our home for the next four nights.

Not only does this road lead to Canopy Tower, it's also great for birding!

The flowers and hummingbird feeders around the entrance to Canopy
Tower attract a number of hummingbird species.
There were hummingbirds zipping around the flowers and feeders in front of the Tower, and Jenn quickly pointed out a Three-toed Sloth looking down at us. We finally made it inside the Tower and once we dropped some of our luggage and gear our room, we headed straight for the observation deck!

The view from the observation deck is pretty spectacular. It provides a panoramic view
from which you can see Panama City, the Centennial Bridge over the canal, and the Panama Canal.
Although there weren't a lot of birds active during the middle of the day, the view from the observation deck was spectacular! Before long, it was time for lunch and then we were off for our first afternoon of birding near the Tower.

Over the next few days, we birded at all of the well-known birding sites that surround the Tower, including the world famous Pipeline Road which is one of the best birding locations in all of North America!

It's easy to find birds when you're birding from Canopy Tower's open air vehicles!
Staying and birding at Canopy Tower was everything that I had hoped it would be and much more. The accommodations are unique, the food is fantastic, and the birding and guides are out of this world! Before long it was time for us to continue on to our next destination, Canopy Lodge, about two hours away in El Valle, although we could have spent several more days at Canopy Tower. Check back on soon to read about our time at Canopy Lodge.

Here's some of Stephanie and I's favorite bird photos from our time at Canopy Tower!

The first lifer for both Stephanie and I was a Blue-chested Hummingbird.

I've never been anywhere that has so many Broad-billed Motmots!

Crimson-crested Woodpecker was a new species for me.

This Gray-headed Tanager was following an ant swarm along the road to Canopy Tower.

One of the specialty species that you can find along Pipeline Road is Great Jacamar.

Mantled Howler Monkeys are often heard and seen around Canopy Tower.

Palm Tanagers are commonly found trying to get a free meal from the buffet line in the dining room!

The Ammo Ponds are a great place to see and photograph Rufescent Tiger-Herons.

One of the many benefits of being at the canopy level is that you can get
eye to eye with sloths such as this Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.

Another shot of a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.

Southern Lapwings are very common in any grassy area in and around Panama City.

The Violet-bellied Hummingbird was my favorite hummingbird species that we saw at Canopy Tower.

I really enjoyed seeing so many White-whiskered Puffbirds during our stay.

It's amazing how iridescent White-necked Jacobins are if the light hits them just right.

This White-vented Plumeleteer ruled over the hummingbird feeders at Canopy Tower.
It spent most of its time chasing other species away from the feeders.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Whitefish Point: Some Recent Highlights

There have been many highlights through the start of October, here at Whitefish Point.  The rest of October should see many more birds and hopefully many new species.  

Lots of Michigan birders came up to the point for the weekend.  We had a relatively slow day on Friday but luckily an adult Long-tailed Jaeger made two passes.  It was a state bird and life bird for many present!  Saturday saw a good flight of 2000+ birds but it came crashing back down today (~300 birds).  We'll see what the weather brings over the next week.

Here are some photos from the last couple weeks.  

A Black-backed Woodpecker that spent a few days
at the point.  Another has also been around the last
couple days.

A medium-sized flock of Canada Geese.  These are actually "Canadian" Canada Geese.

There have been quite a few Northern Goshawks but this was the first adult.

A flock of White-winged Scoters that migrated by the point.

Another flock of White-winged Scoters.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Whitefish Point: 5K+ in a Day

A small mixed-species flock.  2 American Wigeon, 1 Northern Pintail, 1 Mallard
I had my biggest day of the season (so far) at Whitefish Point on the 5th.  A great diversity of ducks moved by in big numbers and Red-necked Grebes had a big day (especially, given the late date).  Scoters had their biggest day of the season; over 500, of all three species, were seen.  Red-necked Grebes had one of their best days of the season with a total of 1885.  This species peaks in late August/early September so having a big day in October was great.

A high-flying flock of White-winged Scoters.

A mixed-species flock of scoters.
Songbird migration has also been impressive over the last couple weeks.  Most warblers are through at this point but sparrows are moving through in big numbers.  In a single sweep of the feeders, I counted over 75 White-crowned Sparrows.  There are also large numbers of juncos, kinglets, and Hermit Thrushes.  Hopefully, it is just a matter of time before something unusual shows up.