Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Break from Texas to Talk About Prairie-Chickens

On Friday night, I met Eric and our friend Chad on the west side of Indianapolis and headed towards Illinois for a trip to see Greater Prairie-Chickens. On the way we stopped at Universal Mines in western Indiana and met up with our friends, Ted and Cindy Meyer, and Kathy Feldman. I added a few birds to my Indiana year list including Tree Swallow and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

After we finished birding, we went into Paris, Illinois and had dinner at a local pizza place. We had a great dinner and got ta watch some of the NCAA tournament action! We finally arrived in Newton, Illinois at about 10pm and quickly got to work setting up our camp at Sam Parr FWA.

The next morning we were up at 4:30am and heading towards Prairie Ridge State Natural Area by 4:45. We arrived at the site very early but we were soon joined by the rest of our group from the Indiana Audubon Society. After some brief instructions from our guide from the refuge, we set off for the blinds. As we waited for the chickens to start booming, we were entertained by calling Wilson's Snipe and a Short-eared Owl that passed by many times. At 6:08, the first chicken started booming and we soon saw some shadowy figures moving towards us from the long grasses at the end of the field.

It was amazing how quickly all of them appeared, our first count was 17 males all booming and fighting for the still absent females. As it continued to get lighter, some females finally started to appear. For the next 2 hours, the chickens continued to display and one even came within about 15 yards of the blinds. It was an amazing experience that I highly recommend all birders take part in at some point!

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken Displaying


Friday, March 26, 2010

Texas Day 4: Bentsen SP and Anzalduas County Park

Our day started off early as we planned to get to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park early and listen for the Elf Owl that had been reported near the visitor center. We were quite disappointed when we walked outside and it was cold, windy, and rainy. We headed to the park anyway, but the rain keep coming. We had to resort to birding from anywhere that provided some shelter. For the first hour we stayed near the visitor center and saw very few birds. The tram that takes you around the park started running shortly thereafter, and we decided to brave the rain and head out into the park. We got off the tram at Kingfisher Overlook and hiked off into the rain. As soon as we got to the overlook, a Ringed Kingfisher flew by giving us great looks at this life bird for both Eric and myself. Now we had 30 minutes to wait for the next tram, and it was still raining as hard as ever. Luckily, there was a covered picnic shelter where we took refuge from the weather and watched some Green Jays.

As we were taking the tram back to the visitor center, I realized that I had a rain jacket in the car that I had packed and completely forgot about. I am sure that I would have been much more comfortable had I remembered this at the start of the day, but at least I had a chance to grab it before we headed back into the park. Since we were all freezing, we got some hot chocolate at the cafe in the visitor's center and sat inside for the next 30 minutes to warm up. Feeling rejuvenated after our break and since the rain had slowed to barely a trickle, we decided to go back out into the park.

We again got off the tram at Kingfisher Overlook but this time we hiked Kiskadee Trail. After a short hike, we came to a blind that had tons of feeders, so we decided to sit there and see what might turn up. There were plenty of Rio Grande specialties and I was able to photograph Plain Chachalaca and White-tipped Dove.

White-tipped Dove

Plain Chachalaca

Plain Chachalaca

Our next stop was the hawk watch tower. While there were few hawks, there were tons of Turkey and Black Vultures that made it a very impressive stop. At this point we decided to break and have lunch and then come back later in the day. After lunch, we headed to Anzalduas County Park. It is an interesting little park situated right on the banks of the Rio Grande. We found my lifer Black Phoebe and a Rock Wren, which is somewhat unusual in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. We headed back to Bentsen but the tram was no longer running so we had to hike into the park. This turned out to be a very good thing, as one of the birds that we found was a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, one of the target species of our trip and a lifer for me! Shortly after this sighting, we had our most exciting mammal encounter of the trip when a Bobcat walked down the trail in front of us!


We didn't add any more species on our hike back to the car, but it was a great day in spite of the rain.

This afternoon Eric and I will be leaving for Illinois where I will be leading a group of Indiana Audubon Society members on a trip to see Greater Prairie-Chickens. This will be a life bird for both of us and hopefully we will find some other interesting birds along the way. Look for a post and some pictures from the trip later this weekend!


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Texas Day 3: South Padre Island and Estero Llano Grande

We started our third day off searching for some roosting parrots and parakeets in Brownsville. It took us only about 15 minutes to locate a small group of Red-crowned Parrots. After watching them for a few minutes, we moved on in search of Green Parakeets. Within a few minutes, we found a group of about 50 - 60 Green Parakeets and one Peach-faced Lovebird (an escaped exotic). Glad to have found the parrots and parakeets so quickly, we moved on to South Padre Island.

Green Parakeet

Peach-faced Lovebird

Our first stop on the island was the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. We immediately spotted a pair of Peregrine Falcon up on the water tower near the entrance to the Center. We found many other great birds at the Center and a few of my favorite shots are below.

Long-billed Curlew

Lesser Yellowlegs

Laughing Gull

Great-tailed Grackle

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

We tried to look for some shorebirds at some of the beach access sites but there were already too many Spring Breakers on the beach and we decided to move off the island and on to Weslaco and Estero Llano Grande State Park.

We arrived at Estero Llano and asked the people in the Visitor Center where the Rose-throated Becard had been being found. They told us where to go and we quickly hiked out towards that spot. After searching for well over an hour, we gave up on the Becard due to the extremely windy conditions. We did find some fantastic birds in the park including my lifer Plain Chachalaca, Lesser Goldfinch, Couch's Kingbird, and Green Kingfisher.

After exhausting our possibilities at Estero Llano, we headed on to our hotel in Mission. After dinner, we decided to try our luck with owls and Pauraque at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. As we hiked into the park, Eric quickly heard a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, a lifer for both of us. As we hiked farther into the park, we were greeted by the sounds of numerous Eastern Screech-Owls calling from all directions. Finally some Common Pauraques started calling and eventually started flying overhead. As we started back to our car, one of the pauraques flew within feet of Eric's head and then landed in the road about 25 feet in front of us. We had great looks at this life bird and headed back to the hotel very happy with our very successful day!


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Birding Texas: Day 2

We started off our second day of birding in Texas by heading to Mustang Island outside of Corpus Christi. This was one of our few chances to find some of the typical coastal birds as we would soon be heading inland to look for more of the Rio Grande Valley specialties. Shortly after crossing the bridge onto the island, we found a pull-off along the road that had an observation platform the looked over a marsh. We quickly added lots of species to our trip list including a couple of white morph Reddish Egrets.

We then moved on to the Port Aransas Birding Center. There is a large boardwalk with an awesome 2 story observation tower. The boardwalk allowed for great photography opportunities and also provided my first lifer of the day, a pair of Cinnamon Teal, though they were too far away to be photographed.

Roseate Spoonbill

We then headed on to Paradise Pond. There were very few birds present but I was able to photograph a Black-crowned Night-Heron. Our next stop was the jetty but it took us some time to actually find the site. After driving around the island for a little while, we found the jetty and quickly spotted a Northern Gannet flying just past the end of the jetty.

That was all the time we had for birding on Mustang Island so we headed on south so that we would have time to check out Laguna Atascosa NWR. We arrived in plenty of time to explore the property before sunset so we started at the Visitor's Center where I saw my first Green Jay and White-tipped Dove. We decided to try our luck with the recently reported Blue Bunting. It had been seen near Osprey Overlook and along the Alligator Pond Trail. We hiked out to Alligator Pond without any luck but on our way back down the trail, Eric saw the Bunting fly into a thick shrub. I was unfortunately about 15 feet behind him and didn't see the bird fly in. We spent the next 30 minutes searching for the Blue Bunting with no luck.

After driving the 15-mile auto tour loop, we went back to Osprey Overlook to try for the Blue Bunting again but the wind was blowing even harder than before and we could not find the bird. This would be the only species on the trip that Eric saw and I did not.

Below are a few of my favorite pictures that I took on the second day of our trip.

Brown Pelican

Blue-winged Teal

Black-crowned Night-Heron

American Avocet

American Avocet

Sunday, March 21, 2010

2 Rare Birds in Texas

Our first day of birding in Texas was spent in San Antonio and Corpus Christi. Toward the end of the day, after deciding that we had enough time to drive from Corpus Christi to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge with some light left to look for birds, we headed north to the refuge. On our way, we realized we wouldn't have nearly as much time as we thought we were going to have. A Townsend's Warbler had been spending most of the winter by the visitor center, so that is where we stopped with only about 45 minutes left until sunset. We started off by looking in the trees across the road from the visitor center, but all we found were mosquitoes. I decided to go look in the trees across the parking lot. The first thing I saw was an Armadillo. I then heard some gnatcatchers and went to find what I hoped would be a flock. Within a couple minutes, the Townsend's Warbler had popped out and foraged at eye level for a couple minutes.

Before arriving in Corpus Christi and Aransas, we started the day in San Antonio at Crownridge Canyon Natural Area. Before getting to the park, we were able to see our first Spotted Towhee, Black-crested Titmouse, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. We also found our only Harris's Sparrow of the trip. All of these birds were seen from the drive thru of McDonald's of all places. Our target bird at the park was Golden-cheeked Warbler; unfortunately we were only able to hear it singing a few times before it moved up the hillside. We did find a couple singing Rufous-crowned Sparrows, which were life birds for Rob.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

From San Antonio, we started heading southeast towards Corpus Christi. On the way, we planned to look for Northern Wheatear (only the second accepted record in Texas) and a Northern Jacana.

Northern Jacana once it had flown across the lake.

Our first stop was at Choke Canyon State Park. As soon as we got out of the car, we started seeing a few of the Texas specialties, including Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Cave Swallow, Long-billed Thrasher, and Olive Sparrow. We walked up on to the dike and quickly found the Northern Jacana on the edge of the lake. The Jacana then flew across the lake and foraged in the reeds for the rest of the time we were there.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher-one of the common roadside birds in Texas

After just a 20 minute drive, we arrived at the Northern Wheatear spot. This wheatear has spent a few months on a small farm in Beeville. Luckily, the owner of the farm (John Borntrager) is a birder and allows people to come on to his farm to see the bird. We scanned the farm for only a few minutes before the wheatear showed up, and we watched it for the next 10 minutes as it foraged and flew around the farm.

Then, we drove on to Corpus Christi and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The number and diversity of hawks was really impressive. We had White-tailed, Harris's, Crested Caracara, and White-tailed Kite among a few others.

Crested Caracara-One of the most common raptors in Texas.

- Eric

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Non Avian Highlights!


Collared Peccary

Coral Snake

Monday, March 15, 2010

One of My Favorites So Far

The Green Jay is one of my favorite lifers on the trip so far! Here is a picture I took of one at Laguna Atascosa NWR. More on our trip to the Rio Grande Valley to come!


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rio Grande Birds

Here are a few shots from the start of our trip to the Rio Grande Valley. We have visited sites in San Antonio and Corpus Christi and we went to Laguna Atascosa NWR. We will be posting more about our adventures soon!

Roseate Spoonbill

Northern Wheatear

Brown Pelican

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Where's Waldo? - SkyWatch Friday

This photo was taken at the Marsh Madness at Goose Pond FWA in Linton, IN. As Eric has already said there were thousands of Sandhill Cranes and one Whooping. Can you spot the Whooping Crane?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Marsh Madness at Goose Pond FWA - Watery Wednesday

This past weekend the annual Marsh Madness event was held at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. Rob and I assisted with it by manning one of the stopping points for a couple hours. This event is planned to coincide with the peak of the Sandhill Crane migration and is based around viewing Sandhills. After arriving at our spot, a few of the other volunteers reported that nobody had come by in the last two hours so we weren't expecting many people. Luckily we had quite a few people come by and quite a few of them were interested in seeing the ducks as well as the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes viewable from our spot.

Just a very small portion of the Sandhills that seemed to be migrating north.

One of the flocks of Sandhills that was feeding in an agricultural field.

We birded many areas around Goose Pond in the morning before manning Beehunter. The main unit of Goose Pond, Main Pool West, was loaded with waterfowl. On our way to the unit we had a flock of about 30 American Pipits in a field and while checking in we had 2 Wilson's Snipes at the main check-in station. The highlight of Main Pool West was 250+ Greater White-fronted Geese. They have become common during migration at Goose Pond but are irregular elsewhere in the state. There were also 2 Tundra Swans feeding among the thousands of ducks.

One of the fields at Beehunter Marsh that was full of ducks. There were many species including Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, American Wigeon, and Northern Shoveler.

Luckily for us while we were showing people the many Sandhill Cranes, a single Whooping Crane flew in. For the next hour of our time spent there, the Whooping Crane was in sight. After the event we drove out through Beehunter and came across a flock of blackbirds that contained a couple thousand individuals. We were lucky enough to pick out some Rusty Blackbirds from thousands of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Waterfowl Symposium: Part 2 - The Birding

The next morning, we got up early and headed back to the Grange Insurance Audubon Center fora field trip to look for waterfowl. Well unfortunately, there is hardly any open water right now so we had to make due on a small stretch of the Scioto River. This river is a great place to see Black Ducks and there were certainly plenty of them for everyone. In addition to the black ducks, we had displaying Common Goldeneye and some beautiful pairs of Hooded Mergansers.

The group at Greenlawn Cemetery including Bill Thompson III
watching a very excited Jim McCormic.

After watching the river for awhile, our group leader Jim McCormic suggested that we head over to Greenlawn Cemetery to look for the Merlin that has spent the past 5 or 6 winters in the area. Shortly after starting our hike, we stopped to watch my first warbler, a Yellow-rumped, of the year. While watching the warbler, we noticed a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker feeding from its sap wells that it had created in the tree.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at its wells.

Many other birds were also feeding on the sap including the Yellow-rumped Warbler and two Red-breasted Nuthatches! Everyone got great scope views and those of us with camera had plenty of time to get some nice shots. As we continued on, someone mentioned that they believed that there was a nesting pair of Great-horned Owls in the area but they had been unable to confirm it. They pointed out the tree that they assumed the owls were nesting in and we were able to find an owl sitting on it's nest. Can you find the owl in the picture below?

We continued along to the area where the Merlin was known to perch and there it was in it's favorite tree. It just sat in the tree and allowed great scope views for everyone that was present including a young birder for whom this bird was a life bird!

The OOS and Columbus Audubon hosted a wonderful event and I hope that they will continue this event in the coming years! I will definitely be back if they do!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Waterfowl Symposium: Part 1 - The Speakers

This past weekend I attended the Waterfowl Symposium in Columbus, Ohio along with Amy Wilms and Karen Henman. The event was hosted by Columbus Audubon and the Ohio Ornithological Society, OOS. The event was held at the new Grange Insurance Audubon Center in downtown Columbus. It is a beautiful and environmentally friendly building and the perfect place to hold a birding event!

Grange Insurance Audubon Center

After driving over to Columbus in a snow storm and taking about 1 1/2 hours extra to get there, we attended a benefit concert held at the facility to support Nature Iraq, but more on that wonderful organization in a minute. The Swinging Orangutangs, Bill Thompson III and Julie Zickefoose's band, had the place rocking despite a low turn out due to the awful weather. We also had plenty of beer from a local brewery that names their beers after birds!

The next morning we headed back to the Center for a full day of programs. Unfortunately, two of the speakers, Chris Wood and Jessie Berry from Cornell, were unable to get into town because of the weather (they were stuck at the Detroit airport for 2 days). Luckily, Jim McCormac had a presentation ready to go about the waterfowl of Ohio and was able to fill in on the first presentation. After learning about the species that are in Ohio, Keith Lott presented a wonderful program about aerial bird surveys on Lake Erie. The surveys are being conducted in order to better understand the viability of constructing windmills in the middle of Lake Erie. While it may be the windiest place in Ohio, we must first guarantee the the thousands of bird that live on and migrate over the lake will not be negatively effected by the project.

During lunch, we were greeted by raptors from a local rehab facility. They delighted the crowd and allowed for closer inspection of species that we normally see at a great distance or not at all in the owls case.

Great Horned Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

After lunch, Paul Baichich told us about the benefits and downfalls of the Federal Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, aka the Duck Stamp. While I do not agree completely with his analysis, it was interesting to hear his perspective on the issues surrounding this program.

The next speaker was Major Randal Rogers. He is in the Ohio National Guard and told of his birding adventures while stationed at Al-Asad Army base in Iraq. He has an amazing story and is responsible for getting Columbus Audubon and the OOS associated with Nature Iraq. If you ever have the chance to hear him speak about his experiences, don't miss it!

Our final speaker of the day was Dr. Gwen Myers of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. She spoke of her experience as a veterinarian on a Spectacled Eider banding project on the North Slope of Alaska. It was a fascinating presentation about a spectacular bird.

Almost the entire population of
Spectacled Eiders wintering in the Bering Sea.

After a short break and dinner, the keynote speaker Dr. Azzam Alwash, the CEO of Nature Iraq spoke about the current restoration of the south marshes of Iraq that were drained during Sadaam Hussein's reign. He is an inspiring speaker and is very passionate about restoring the marshes to their former glory. To learn more about Nature Iraq check out Dr. Alwash on 60 Minutes:

Dr. Azzam Alwash