Friday, December 28, 2012

Birding on Cozumel Island-Day 1

Eric writes:  Our first day in Mexico consisted of flying into Cancun in the morning, hopping on an ADO bus to Playa del Carmen, hopping onto a ferry to Cozumel, and then lots of walking.  When we arrived on Cozumel we were set to meet our CouchSurfing host, Oscar, at the University on the island.  It turned out a bit more complicated when there were two people who worked at the university with the same name.  After a while we got it figured out; then walked to his house where we were staying for the next two nights.

A view of Playa del Carmen from the ferry across to Cozumel-notice
the big Christmas tree.
Black Catbird-An endemic to the Yucatan and northern Belize

Bananaquit-We even saw one of these in the fruit section of  a grocery
store on Cozumel.
On our walk to the university and on the university's grounds we picked up a couple of nice warbler species, Black Catbird, and Bananaquit.  Oscar's house was on the edge of town so the next morning we got going early and with only a couple minute walk we were in some nice birding habitat.  Our main targets were the endemic species and subspecies.  The species were Cozumel Vireo, Emerald, and Wren (which currently is considered a subspecies of House Wren, although it sounds nothing like one and looks a bit different as well).  Within the first couple hours we had great looks at Cozumel Vireo and Emerald.  But hadn't seen any sign of the wren.

Female Cozumel Emerald-we also saw a few males but I was
never able to get a picture of one.

A Cozumel Vireo-we ended up having many of this species on the island.
We spent the afternoon relaxing (and avoiding the heat) at Oscar's house.  Later we found some new habitat to bird which turned out to be very productive-we had almost every endemic in this location in the afternoon and the following morning.  At night we came back to this same spot and Ethan was able to get some great recordings of Common Pauraque.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My First Mexican Christmas Bird Count

Eric writes:  I made it back from Mexico on Christmas eve; luckily before any of the heavy snow hit the Midwest.  Now, I am enjoying the snow after having been in 70-80 degree temperatures just a couple days ago.  There will be many stories and pictures to come in the next couple weeks but I will start off with how our trip ended with participating in a Christmas Bird Count in Rio Lagartos, Mexico.  

After travelling by bus through the night we arrived at the bus station in Rio Lagartos around midday.  Ethan had set up a boat trip out into the mangroves as well as a hotel for the two nights we would be spending in Rio Lagartos so we headed to the restaurant that was owned by the same guy, Diego.  We met Diego after eating at the restaurant and he mentioned that the Rio Lagartos CBC would be run on the 23rd.  We changed our plans slightly and were ready to help out.

Magnificent Frigatebirds on the sign for the restaurant-these birds were
incredibly tame.
A few people met at the hotel the morning of the CBC then we made a couple of quick stops while leaving town to go to our first spot.  We were all with Diego, the compiler of the count, as well as two university students that were studying tourism (I believe).  Our first stop was in the San Salvador Ranch area which is on the edge of the mangrove and desert scrub habitats.  We were all hoping to see Yucatan Bobwhite and Lesser Roadrunner which we had missed to that point.  We found both fairly quickly, so from there on all birds were just nice bonuses for our trip.

White-tailed Hawk-our first of the trip
Yucatan Bobwhite-an endemic to the Yucatan, male on the left, female on
the right

We were riding in a van through the morning but switched vehicles for the afternoon.  The front passenger window was not working on the van so it was tough birding from that seat (we had a few other problems with windows on our trip as well).  So, after a quick lunch, we hopped into the back of a pickup truck and were off.  This time we birded the road over to San Felipe which turned out to have many species.  

Birding out of the back of the pickup truck.

We had some great looks at hawks and waterbirds along this road including Common Black Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk-both of which can be seen in the US.  Some of the nice waterbirds included Limpkin, Least Bittern, and Sora.  We also had some egrets and herons, plenty of Tropical Mockingbirds, Tropical/Couch's Kingbirds, and orioles.

A very cooperative Common Black Hawk.

Our only Limpkin of the whole trip.
After birding this road we birded one more spot-the road out of Rio Lagartos heading inland.  This road turned out to be the road of long tailed birds.  We ended up seeing two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a Turquoise-browed Motmot-one of my target birds for the Rio Lagartos area.  We also had a couple of nice raptors along this stretch of road, Laughing Falcon and Merlin.  Unfortunately, we had to leave in the early afternoon to catch a bus back to Cancun since we were flying out early the next morning.

More stories to come soon!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Goose Pond CBC

Rob writes: On Wednesday, John Schaust, Chandler Roberts, and I headed down to Goose Pond FWA for a Christmas Bird Count. We met up with the rest of our team at the McDonald's in Linton at 6:45 am and were headed to our unit by 7:15. On our way in, we had 3 Short-eared Owls fly right over the road in front of our car. Once in our unit, we split up to cover more ground 2 of us took the higher ground on the levee and 2 others stayed down in the grasses. It didn't take long before the two down in the grasses were on to something! They called us over and the first bird I got my binoculars on was a Nelson's Sparrow! I was unaware at the time but have since found out that it was the first Nelson's Sparrow ever seen in Indiana during the month of December. Along with the Nelson's were at least 2 LeConte's Sparrows.

One of the LeConte's Sparrows
We covered the rest of our unit without many major highlights. Waterfowl was few and far between but we did find a pretty decent number of Greater White-fronted Geese. We met all of the other participants at the midday species count up at lunchtime. As a group, we had the highest species total by midday that we have ever had, 101!

During the afternoon, my group birded throughout Greene-Sullivan State Forest but we were unable to add any species to the days total. The preliminary total for all the teams is 105, only 3 short of our all time record of 108.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Answer to Bird Quiz #156 - Vesper Sparrow

This quiz was a tricky sparrow but most people were able to figure it out! There are still several people that have answered all three of the quizzes correctly in this series.

Last Week's Quiz:

How to Identify:

While most people were able to quickly figure out that this is a species of sparrow, figuring out which species was much trickier. This sparrow shows fine streaking on the sides which helps us eliminate a lot of species. It also has a white throat, malar, and eye-ring. This photo also shows a feature that is rarely seen on this species when it is not in flight, rufous lesser coverts. All of these features lead us to identify this bird as a Vesper Sparrow.

Next Quiz:

The final quiz in the December series can be found here:


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

BSBO Pelagic and A Very Strange Kingbird

Rob writes:  I found myself back in northwest Ohio this weekend for another Black Swamp Bird Observatory's (BSBO) Lake Erie Pelagic trip. The weather looked terrible for the day, but sometimes that is what you need to drive the good birds in off the lake! Several of us that were going on the trip meet up at BSBO so that we could ride together on the BSBO Bird Bus to Cleveland where we were meeting the boat for the trip. We were surrounded by fog and rain for the entire drive, but it stopped raining just as we arrived and didn't rain at all while we were on the boat. After cruising down the river to Lake Erie, it became evident that gulls were going to be a theme for the day! There were too many Ring-billed, Herring, and Bonaparte's Gulls to count and several Great Black-backed Gulls as well. Not too long after reaching the lake, one of the other leaders, Gabe Leidy, spotted a Pomarine Jaeger flying right over the coastline!

We tried to go farther into the lake, but it quickly became evident that there was too much fog for us to find many birds, so we headed back towards the breakwall to see if we might be able to spot a Purple Sandpiper. Unfortunately, there were no sandpipers to be found, but we did find the likely reason why they were no where to be found - at the end of the breakwall sat a beautiful Peregrine Falcon! Although a little cold with the wind, it was a great day to be out on the lake.

When we arrived back at BSBO on Saturday evening, we found posts on the Birding Ohio Facebook Group about a very strange kingbird that had been found in Sandusky earlier in the day. Any kingbird in Ohio in December is crazy, but something was just not right about this bird. As others had already suggested, it was clear that this bird was likely a hybrid. From the photos it seemed that one of its parents was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and the other was likely either a Western or Couch's Kingbird! Scissor-tailed Flycatcher/Western Kingbird hybrids are well documented, but as far as I know, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher/Couch's Kingbird hybrid has never been recorded.

Kenn Kaufman and I decided that we were going to drive to Sandusky on Sunday morning to see if we could re-find the bird and get some more photos. We arrived at Pipe Creek pretty early, and the kingbird was nowhere to be found. After walking around for a long time, one of the other birders started motioning for us to hurry over. The kingbird was perched in the open not all that far off of the road! We all quickly started taking pictures as the bird flew from perch to perch. We spent the next couple of hours watching and photographing the bird and studying its call to see if it was any indication as to what species the second parent might be.

Here are some of the shots I took of the bird. The lighting was not great while we were there, so some of the photos are not nearly as sharp as I would like.  But I can't really complain since I got to watch this bird for so long!

This was the closest I got to the bird. It was perched up on this wire for several minutes.

A blurry shot but you can see the shape of the tail very well.

This shot very clearly shows the shape of the tail.

A side shot of the bird showing some yellow-green color on the back.

The bird seemed to like to land on street signs as we saw it on several different ones!
While it may never be known what species hybridized to create this bird (without DNA analysis), it was absolutely awesome to see it in person. I know some people will not go see this bird because it does not "count" on their life lists, but they are really missing out!


Monday, December 10, 2012

Answer to Bird Quiz #155 - Stilt Sandpiper

As usual, when we include a shorebird in our quiz, people find it challenging. Even though this was a very tough quiz, eight people got the answer correct!

Last Week's Quiz:

How to Identify:

Based on habitat and the structure of the bird, it is very evident that this is some species of shorebird. Size is hard to judge from this photograph so it is not all that helpful. We can see that this bird has plain gray upperparts. It also has a pretty long slightly drooping bill. If we look closely at the head, we will notice that it has a very sloped forehead and a pretty distinct white eyebrow. All of these field marks lead us to identify this bird as a Stilt Sandpiper. The bill helps us to eliminate the dowitchers from consideration and the distinct white eyebrow helps us to eliminate Dunlin. Dunlin would also show a more decurved bill than this Stilt Sandpiper.

Next Quiz:

The third quiz in this series can be found at:


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Successes for Pacific Seabirds

This week, there have been a couple of announcements about huge successes for the conservation of seabirds in the Pacific.

This first comes from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (HLNR). In 2011, a predator proof fence was installed at the Ka'ena Point Natural Area Reserve on Oahu. The fence keeps non-native predators like mongoose, rats, and mice out of the area and allows the seabirds to nest with no risk of predation from these outside influences. This has lead to some pretty dramatic increases in the quantity of nesting seabirds. According to the HLNR, the number of hatchings for Wedge-tailed Shearwaters has more than doubled from the previous high! The number has gone from 1,556 in 2007 to 3,274 this year. Laysan Albatross numbers have also increased 15% since the fence was installed. Hopefully more money can be found and more fences installed in other nesting areas so we can continue to have more and more seabirds in the Pacific! You can find the full story here:

Although this Great Shearwater does not occur in the Pacific, there are similar regulations in the Atlantic that help species such as this one. Not to mention, it is one of my only good shots of a seabird!
The other story comes from BirdLife International. Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) announced that they have agreed to adopt new measures that are likely to reduce the number of albatross that get tangled in long line fishing hooks and drown. According to BirdLife, scientists estimate that 300,000 seabirds die each year from this cause and it seems to be the main reason that 17 of the worlds 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction. It is estimated that once these measures are put into place, the number of albatrosses killed could drop by up to 80%! The full story can be found here:

I really hope that these stories will make a huge impact on the conservation of our seabirds. Hopefully, I will have the chance to see and photograph at least one of these species while I am in Hawaii next year!


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Birding the Mayan Ruins of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala

In less than a week I will be heading down to Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala for a spectacular birding trip (with Ethan Kistler and Chris West) that includes seeing many of the Mayan ruins as well as the 450 or so species of birds in the region.  This will be my second time birding in Mexico and my first for both Belize and Guatemala.  On my last Mexico trip, I birded the western coast and mountains; luckily there is very little overlap between the two regions, when considering the bird communities.  Once south/east of the isthmus, the bird communities turn much more tropical.

  Top of Caana Caracol Belize

Mexico has a very high rate of endemism for it's location, so it is a great birding destination to add a few lifers.  Since I haven't birded other parts of Central America there will be many new birds for me.  There are 14 endemics on the Yucatan Peninsula alone and many others that are near endemics or endemic to northern Central America.  

Gray-throated Chat
A Gray-throated Chat-allopatric with the Red-breasted Chat I saw in west Mexico
Photographer's photostream:
Now, back to learning the calls and songs of all of these new (at least to me) species.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

App Review: National Geographic: Field Guide to the Birds of North America

National Geographic has just launched their first field guide app that uses the same illustrations and descriptions that many birders love from the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition. In addition to all the great illustrations, this app also offers songs and calls from the wonderful Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The app is currently only available for the iPhone, but there will be an iPad version soon.

The main species pages are layed out in this format.
The "Sounds" section of this app is fantastic. It offers multiple songs for many species and as an added bonus lists birds that are similar sounding so that you can listen to those as well to help with identifying a bird.

Another very interesting addition to this app that I have not seen on any other field guide apps that I have personally used is the incorporation of video to help with identification. Currently the app offers videos for 18 species that will help you understand their behavior as well as their songs. With only 18 species, it is a little limited in what it currently offers in this department, but hopefully this will be expanded in the future. There is a lot that we can learn from video about behavior that will make us better at identifying birds. This feature can be found in the "Tool Kit" section which also offers some very good articles on all things birding - from selecting binoculars to ID tips and tricks.

You can see that there are 2 recordings for
Juniper Titmouse included.
Just like the printed guide from National Geographic, this app offers more birds than any other North American guide, including rarities seen only once. I was very happy to see that Eric's Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush he found in South Dakota in 2010 was mentioned in the app!

The app offers extensive record keeping abilities, but without being able to submit these lists to eBird, I do not find it very useful. I feel that most birders either are or in the future will be using eBird, so a listing program does not add any benefit to the app for me.

I would highly recommend that birders add this app to their collection. It offers great illustrations and will help a lot if you come across something very unusual!


Monday, December 3, 2012

Answer to Bird Quiz #154 - Horned Grebe

The December quiz series is off to a great start! Everyone that submitted an answer was right on track.

Last Week's Quiz:

How to Identify:

This week's quiz did not fool anyone! Based on body shape and size, it is pretty easy to decide that this is some grebe species. Once we get to this point, many of the classic identification points for Horned Grebe are visible. It shows a light tip on the bill, a white neck, big white cheek, and a slight peak on the head behind the eye.

Next Quiz:

The second quiz in the December series can be found here:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Wild Goose Chase

Rob and I had been planning on heading up to the Indiana lakefront for the past few days, so when a Barnacle Goose showed up, not too far away in Illinois, we decided to make a day of it.  We had high hopes as we arrived at the pond behind the shopping mall that the bird had been using.  Unfortunately, the bird was no where to be seen.  There were many Canada and Cackling Geese in the area so we checked lots of other areas without any luck.

After our unsuccessful and time consuming search we headed to Dunes State Park to look for redpolls.  This time we were met with much more success when 15-20 or more dropped into the feeders.  There were also American Goldfinch, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches mixed in with the other feeder birds.  

Clay-colored Sparrow at Ogden Dunes
We didn't have a ton of daylight left so we headed to Ogden Dunes to look for our other target species of the trip, Bohemian Waxwing.  Although we may have heard a couple of very distant Bohemians we had no luck.  But the biggest surprise of the day turned up, a very late Clay-colored Sparrow.  This bird was hanging out with the juncos and was only seen once but we were able to get a few quick photos.

Common Redpolls and American Goldfinches

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Birding Texas: Estero Llano Grande State Park

During my time in Texas, I spent most of one day birding at Estero Llano Grande State Park.  For many birders that visit the valley, this is the highlight of the trip.  Almost all of the specialties are possible as well as many species of waterbirds due to the extensive lake/marsh habitat.  My favorite area of the park is the tropical zone which is a heavily wooded in most areas and usually holds a few uncommon birds.  The visitor center (which you have to pay at) is also a nice spot to scan one of the marshes that is usually very good.

Clay-colored Thrush
The tropical zone is an interesting area with a few houses mixed throughout the forest but the habitat is still great and attracts many species.  There is a feeding station which attracts most of the common birds in the area and a water drip that usually has a Clay-colored Thrush or Olive Sparrow both of which do not commonly come out into the open.

I cropped this a bit closer than the original so the Common Pauraque
wouldn't be too difficult to find. 
Green Jay-one of the common birds that visit the feeding station in the
tropical zone.
 The marshes teem with waterfowl of many species including the extremely cute, Least Grebe.  It is also one of the more reliable spots to find Fulvous Whistling-Duck during the winter.  Of course, as with most lakes in the area there are always a good number of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.  Both Green and Ringed Kingfishers hunt the marshes and canals; during my visit I watched as a Ringed Kingfisher tried to eat a turtle.  I eventually left the kingfisher when it seemed like he would never be successful in downing the turtle.  Kingbirds usually hunt over the marshes as well with Tropical being the expected species in the late fall/winter.

2 Green-winged Teal and a Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Pretty much, it is a great place to bird, with something new around every corner.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Answer to Bird Quiz #153 - Cassin's Kingbird

This week was a very strong finish to our November bird quiz series with lots of correct answers. We had two people get all of the quizzes correct, Landon Neumann and Nick Kiehl, and the winner is Landon! The next quiz will be the first in another series of four quizzes for another t-shirt!

Last Week's Quiz:

How to Identify:

Our bird this week can be fairly easily identified as a kingbird for a few simple reasons. The gray head and chest, yellow belly, long tail and primary projection, and the thick, fairly long bill eliminate all other birds. They gray back and what appears to be a mostly gray chest quickly eliminate Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds. The long, black tail and the long primary projection with primaries extending beyond the undertail coverts eliminated Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds as well. So, we are down to Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds which can be difficult to identify in some situations; luckily we can see the field marks that separate these two species. The white-tipped tail (instead of white-edged down the sides in Western) and the distinct white chin of the Cassin’s Kingbird are quite noticeable. Also the dark gray back instead of a greenish back in Western helps to identify this as a Cassin’s. The darker gray chest and head (than Western) as well as the whitish edged wing coverts are just icing on the cake for this identification.

Next Quiz:

The first quiz in our next series of quizzes can be found at

Saturday, November 24, 2012

South Texas Farmland

Most birders travel to the lower Rio Grande Valley to bird at iconic locations such as Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the Sabal Palm Sanctuary.  What most birders don't realize is that just 20 minutes north of the valley there is extensive farmland with some grassland that provides a different suite of birds.  

Sprague's Pipit-SE of Raymondville, within a group of about 10 individuals
Sprague's Pipit-showing the streaky back that camouflages
on most occasions-although not so much at this angle

There are almost endless roads to drive on out through the fields but many (at least at first) appear to be private, or at least not meant for random people driving down them.  However, these roads are the best roads for birding due to their lack of traffic and the habitat that they travel through.  Raptors, including White-tailed Hawk and Harris's Hawk, abound over the fields while pipits, larks, and occasionally longspurs feed in the fields.  Whenever there are some tree lines or woodland edge many more species are possible.

White-tailed Hawk-this one was heading towards me . . . so I thought
I would get a much better photo.  However, it changed it's mind . . . 

Ladder-backed Woodpecker-one of the species that you may see in the
tree lines. 
 The grasslands also bring in more sparrows than the typical parks in the valley.  Sparrows such as Lark and Clay-colored become fairly common and others such as Vesper are here and there.  Of course, Savannah Sparrows are the most common species as they are throughout most of the area.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Review: The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical PAcific

With a trip to Hawaii coming up in just a few months, I decided to purchase what I heard was the best guide to the birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. I am working on planning ahead for this trip so that I can be extremely familiar with the birds of Maui and the Big Island when I get there.

I have been studying the book off and on since I got it about a month ago and have found that A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific is a fantastic field guide but it could definitely use to be updated. I have spent most my time on the Hawaiian birds section but have noticed that all plates of the species are drawn with incredible accuracy and are already helping me learn more than the photos that I have studied before.

The plates are all together in one section with a short description about the bird and on what islands it can be found if it has a limited range. This allows for a lot more information to be included in the section that describes all of the species. Each species is described in detail as are its songs and calls.

The reason that I believe that this book needs to be updated is that the pace of decline for many of these species has caused this book to inaccurately describe their range and abundance.

There is a really good section in the front of the book about conservation in the region. It is quite startling to look at the table of threatened and endangered birds and then to read about the multitude of threats still facing these species that are just barely hanging on.

Overall, this book is a must have for anyone planning to do any birding in Hawaii or the Tropical Pacific!

A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published Date: June 1, 1987
Author: Douglas Pratt, Phillip Bruner, and Delwyn Berrett

The links are to our Amazon Affiliate account.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Birding Sea Rim State Park

On the northeast coast of Texas, is a remote beach and coastal marsh that is still fairly undeveloped.  Driving west from Sabine Pass, Texas on Highway 87 you dead end into the state park and McFadden National Wildlife Refuge with miles of wilderness.  The best way to explore this area is by kayak or canoe but even without, most birds are fairly easily found.  

Northern Harrier above the dunes.

Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, and
Great-tailed Grackle take off from the coastal marsh.
Sea Rim State Park provides easy access to a great coastal marsh and dunes as well as a great stretch of the coast.  A boardwalk takes you around the marsh where you can get nice views of all the herons and egrets, shorebirds, and ducks.  During the winter, Northern Harriers cruise over the marsh to add a bit more excitement and Merlins zip by while hunting the beach and dunes.

Snowy Plover-one of about 15 individuals present, a few Piping were also
in the mix.

Seaside Sparrow-one of many wintering in the dune grasses.

A walk down the beach and into the dunes is well worth it as well.  Many shorebirds gather in the winter including many Snowy and Piping Plovers, Marbled Godwit, and American Avocets.  Merlins hunt from perches on the beach while Brown Pelicans dive into the ocean catching fish.  A walk in the dune grasses will quickly provide great views of Seaside Sparrow and Sedge Wrens.  And, when you get sick of the open habitats, you can head back east on Highway 87 to a couple of woodlands, such as Sabine Woods where migrants abound in season.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: Bird-Watcher's Bible

National Geographic Bird-watcher's Bible: A Complete Treasury is packed full of information. By covering everything from avian anatomy to how to become a birder, there is little information that you cannot find in this book.

Over the past several days, I have read parts of all the sections of the book, and it is really quite amazing how much information is included in each area. In addition to the written content, the photography and illustrations are phenomenal. Every page has interesting and informative artwork that really helps drive home the points made in the text.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the "Bird Brain" trivia boxes with all kinds of fun facts!  Here's an example from page 176:

"Like stealth bombers, owls are equipped with deadly tools.  The edges of their wing feathers have soft fringes for silent flight, their night-vision eyes are large and forward-facing, their radar-dish heads can swivel through 270 degrees, and their large ear openings are set asymmetrically to give them three-dimensional hearing."

While all the authors that contributed to this book are talented, I most preferred the sections written by Scott Weidensaul. His introduction and chapter on Flight and Migration are fantastic.

This book is a great addition to any birders collection and would make a very nice Christmas present!

National Geographic Bird-watcher's Bible: A Complete Treasury
Publisher:  National Geographic
Published Date:  October 2, 2012
Editor:  Jonathan Alderfer

We received a copy of this book from the publisher to review on The links are to our Amazon Affiliate account.