Thursday, August 28, 2014

Grebes, Grebes, and More Grebes

A sunrise at Whitefish Point
The last few days, here at Whitefish Point, have been quite incredible.  Before the 26th, my highest daily total of Red-necked Grebes was 65.  I was happy with a measly 323 Red-necks on the 26th.  If you told me I saw 323 grebes over the last two days, my reaction would be, "yeah, that's a typical hour".  With all the east winds during the first week and a half of the count, I think all these grebes were just held up.  Once the winds started coming out of the NW, the grebes started flowing through.  

The typical, distant view of Red-necked Grebes from Whitefish Point.

So, how many grebes did I count?  1482 Red-necks during the 8 hour count on the 27th.  Another 1410 in 2.5 hours on the evening of the 27th.  And, 2200 in the eight hours of the waterbird count today.  I thought I had seen lots of Red-necked Grebes before I started this count, I definitely hadn't.

One of the Broad-winged Hawks that have been around the point.

Most of the Red-necked Grebes are single species flocks but a handful are more interesting.  Most commonly Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal join the grebe flocks.  Less commonly the grebes join the teal flocks.  And, even less commonly, scoters join in the flocks as well.  A couple times, a Horned Grebe has also joined in with the Red-necks.

Sometimes when you are counting these thousands of birds you wish there were a little more diversity.  Don't worry, Whitefish Point will usually try to satisfy this craving.  Today, a beautiful, adult, Parasitic Jaeger passed closely by the point in the afternoon.  There isn't a better way to top the day than with a jaeger!


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

From Rancho to Savegre

Day 4 - After some brief birding and breakfast at Rancho Naturalista, we all piled in the van and headed toward the San Gerardo de Dota Valley and the Savegre Mountain Lodge. We had a few stops planned along the way, and they all turned out to be incredible!

Once on the PanAmerican Highway, we made a stop at a nice little restaurant called Mirador de Quetzals. You might think that we were stopping here in search of quetzals, but we were actually there to see the amazing Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that frequent their hummingbird feeders. Before we were even out of the van, we could see the hummingbirds. Upon closer looks, we counted 35 Fiery-throateds and 15 Magnificent Hummingbirds! We spent almost an hour watching and photographing these amazing birds as they zipped around the feeders. We also enjoyed the many Band-tailed Pigeons flying around the valley as well as our first Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher of the trip!

An up-close shot of one of the many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds.
We were amazed by the number of Fiery-throated Hummingbirds coming to the feeders!
It was hard to pull ourselves away from the feeders, but we finally loaded back in the van and headed up to an even higher elevation. The paramo, an alpine tundra habitat, of Cerro de la Muerto is quite the unique habitat area. It's at such a high elevation that the temperatures are chilly and you are above the timberline. This leads to the presence of several species that specialize in this habitat zone.

We quickly found one of our targets, Volcano Junco, and got in position to photograph them. They were very comfortable around people, and I actually laid down on the ground and had them pretty much walk right up to me.

An adult Volcano Junco perches in a bush just long enough for me to snap a nice shot.
This young Volcano Junco was following one of the adults around and paying no attention to us.
While photographing the juncos, we heard a Timberline Wren flying over but had trouble relocating the bird. We hiked along several of the roads in the paramo and found some other cool species including a couple Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes. As we were about to head back to the van, I heard an unfamiliar song and a few of us decided to hunt it down. We were extremely glad we found it when we finally got a look and identified it as a Peg-billed Finch!

We thought we had lucked out and avoided rain even though the skies looked threatening but while walking back to the car, the rain let loose and we got soaked. It was beginning to get late in the day so we continued on our way to the Savegre Mountain Lodge. On our way down the road into the San Gerardo de Dota Valley, we stopped at a little roadside cafe called Miriam's. We were surprised by the awesome variety of birds and even more surprised to find the best hot chocolate any of us had ever had!

I've seen Acorn Woodpeckers in the US before but it was fun to see them at high elevation locations in Costa Rica.
Flame-colored Tanagers were common visitors at the feeders and also very fun to photograph.
Look at those feet on this Large-footed Finch!
Rufous-collared Sparrows are very common throughout Costa Rica.
We thought our day of birding was done as we made our way to the hotel, but there was one more surprise waiting for us. As we were driving down the road one of the kids yelled "stop, look at that hawk"! We all hurried to get a look before the bird disappeared. Everyone got to see the only Ornate Hawk-Eagle that we had on the whole trip!

We settled in to the very comfortable Savegre Mountain Lodge after a very rewarding day of birding. Check back soon to hear about our time spent birding around the lodge!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Little Bit of Sabine's in Your Life

A sunrise on Lake Superior at Whitefish Point
My last few days of waterbird counting here at Whitefish Point, have ended up being fairly interesting.  Numbers have still been on the low side, but then again, it is only August.  Considering that I spend at least eight hours watching the lake each day, some good bird sightings are expected.  

The most exciting bird came on Thursday when I spotted an interesting gull flying directly away from me.  As it descended to land on the water, it flashed its distinctive back pattern.  It was a Sabine's Gull!  This juvenile spent five minutes or so flying in the vicinity of the point and eventually landed offshore again.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to keep track of it once it landed.  Fog rolled in soon after; then there was no chance in relocating the bird.

A terrible photo of the Sabine's Gull.
There is some great shorebird habitat at the point and consequently, the shorebirds continue to be the main highlight.  The most uncommon shorebird to show up so far has been a Willet, which could end up being my only Willet of the count.  Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Baird's Sandpipers keep it interesting, and are around most days.

Common Loon flying over the point.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Rest of My Time at Rancho Naturalista

I had always heard great things about Rancho Naturalista but I didn't truly appreciate the property until I was there. As you read in my last post, the birding on property was fantastic but what I didn't mention is how comfortable the accommodations are or how incredible the food is! The staff and owners of the lodge made us feel at home and we enjoyed getting to know them during our stay. Although we had not really planned to use a guide from Rancho Naturalista while we were there, their guide Harry helped us out a lot. He is an extremely talented guide and is quite honestly one of the best I have worked with anywhere in the world. We were very lucky to have him with us during this portion of our trip.

I surprisingly remembered to take a photo of my room before all of my birding gear exploded out of my bag!
The rooms were very nice and comfortable.
Everyone in the group agreed that we couldn't think of a better spot to spend a few days birding. Even though we were there during the "low" season, the birding was fantastic. The only thing that is really different is that none of the neotropical migrants are around. This pretty much means that the only birds you are missing out on are ones that occur in the United States anyway. We felt that the reduced amount of people on the property (for 2 of the 3 nights we were the only group there) really made our time there even more special. I highly encourage everyone to consider visiting this property on their next trip to Costa Rica!

All that said, I should probably tell you all about our second day in the Rancho Naturalista area. After some brief morning birding and breakfast, we loaded into the van and headed a few minutes down the road to the La Mina area. We had one major target (Sunbittern) and plenty of other birds to look for as well. After some quality time spent watching Amazon Kingfishers, Torrent Tyranulets, and a Buff-rumped Warbler, we finally found a Sunbittern! Unfortunately, some of our group members were a little too short to see over the grasses and down to the river and the bird flew off before we could find a better spot to look from.

This Black-striped Sparrow paused just long enough for me to snap a photo of it along La Mina Road.

Fasciated Tiger-Herons love rocky rushing rivers and feel right at home in the La Mina area.
Since not everyone had seen the bird, we decided to keep walking down the road and watching the river hoping to come across another one. We walked about 2 miles to where the road finally ended in the river or at least that is what we thought the road did. As we were standing there looking up and down the river, a pickup truck approached and proceeded to cross the river. I've never seen anyone cross such a fast moving and deep river, and there were several times that we were sure the truck would be swept away, never to be seen again. The driver finally made it across and continued on his way and we all stood there in shock!

We found a few Crimson-collared Tanagers as we were driving out of the La Mina area.
It is such a striking tanager and one of my favorites!
We made our way back up to our parked van but never did see the Sunbittern again. After lunch at Rancho Naturalista, we decided to take it easy for the early afternoon hours. This gave me a chance to head down the road a bit from Rancho Naturalista and visit my friend Jill McDaniel who I met while birding in Honduras last year. Her and her husband have built a beautiful home less than a 5 minute walk from the lodge and are attracting some amazing birds to their feeders!

We were very excited to see this Rufous Mourner near the feeding station at Rancho Naturalista!
Our group decided to spend our final evening back at the hummingbird pools watching Snowcaps again. It was a wonderful couple hours. We got more great views of Snowcaps and greatly improved the views we had of Dull-mantled Antbird!

Rancho Naturalista is well known for getting birder their lifer Snowcap.
It was getting dark when I took this photo but you can still tell what a beautiful bird it is.

This Purple-crowned Fairy was a frequent visitor at the hummingbird pools.

It was a long way down to the area where this Dull-mantled Antbird liked to hang out but I was still able to get a photo of it.
We enjoyed our last dinner at Rancho Naturalista and spent a long time talking with Lisa who's family owns the property. Everyone was sad to be leaving in the morning but ready to start the next part of our adventure.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Costa Rica Part 1: Rancho Naturalista

As you all know, I recently spent two weeks in Costa Rica, with the first week spent leading a tour and the second week traveling to other parts of the country with a couple friends. The tour was a custom trip for two families from the Cincinnati, Ohio area. This made the trip extremely fun for me, as it was the first time that two of the young birders had seen most of the birds that we found! You can read about Ethan and Tyler's (the two young birders) experience on their blog, Cinci Young Birders.

In order to really cover everything that I experienced while I was in Costa Rica and to do justice to all of the amazing things the country has to offer, I decided to break my posts down by each lodge that we stayed. So now, the first part of my adventure - arriving in San Jose and our first day at Rancho Naturalista.

On my first day, I arrived in San Jose a little before noon and quickly made my way though customs after seeing my first lifer for the trip at the airport - a Gray-breasted Martin. I was hoping to have some time to go birding that afternoon, but it was pouring outside so the local guide that I hired for the week took me straight to my hotel.

My group arrived the next morning, and we immediately started our drive to Rancho Naturalista. Along the way, we took time to stop at a lookout point and then made our way to the Ruins of Ujarras. This was a great place to get out and stretch our legs while seeing some really cool birds. The highlights were Provost's Ground-Sparrow, Blue-crowned Motmot, Common Tody-Flycatcher, and Crimson-fronted Parakeet.

This Blue-crowned Motmot was extremely cooperative and was posing for the cameras!
Common Tody-Flycatchers are small, but they have a lot of personality. This bird was was checking us out and trying to figure out what we were doing with our cameras!
A large flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets spent a long time flying around the ruins and would land from time to time. Luckily this one landed near me so I could snap this photo.
One bird that I really wanted to see while in Costa Rica was the Provost's Ground-Sparrow. It was really amazing to find them on the first day of birding!
Once we felt that we had seen all the birds that the ruins had to offer, we headed off to lunch in Turrialba. After lunch, we stopped at and around Casa Turire and were extremely excited that Red-breasted Blackbird was one of the first birds that we saw on the beautiful grounds! Once we moved onto the main part of the property, we quickly found a pair of Southern Lapwings and three Green Ibis! As excited as I was about all of these birds, some members of the group were even more excited when we found our first Keel-billed Toucan of the trip.

I was surprised by how striking this Red-breasted Blackbird was.
The local guide that I had hired didn't tell us that he was taking us to a location that had Southern Lapwings. Man were we surprised when we saw these guys!
As we arrived at Rancho Naturalista, the staff was there to welcome us to the property and to help us get all of our luggage to our rooms. We immediately felt at home at Rancho Naturalista (more about the property in another post) and couldn't wait to start exploring! Unfortunately, there was only about an hour of daylight left, but we made the most of our time watching their bird feeding station. Everyone was amazed at the number of hummingbirds zipping around the feeders!

White-necked Jacobins are the most common hummingbirds at Rancho Naturalista and do their best to chase all of the other hummingbirds off when they can.
Even though my group wasn't going to be meeting me until 5:45am, I woke up really early and couldn't get back to sleep. So I headed for the deck that over looks the feeding station to see what might be moving as it started to get light outside. Although it was raining and quite foggy, some birds were already coming in to feed, and several others joined me shortly after I arrived on the deck. We had planned to head off looking for birds right away, but the rain kept coming down so we spent a little extra time at the feeders. Highlights during our two hour feeder watch included Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Bay-headed Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and Orange-billed Sparrow. (Complete eBird List)

Once the rain started to ease up a bit, we decided to take a hike down the entrance road of the property. We had barely started hiking when we found one of the highlights of my whole trip, a Black-crested Coquette! Over the next couple hours, we found 75 species, and everyone saw many lifers. My favorite birds that we saw during the hike were Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Cinnamon Becard, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Slate-throated Redstart. (Complete eBird List)

I've seen Long-billed Gnatwrens before, but they have never been easy to photograph. I was very happy to get this shot!
Since we still had some time before lunch, we continued on to the more wooded trails on the property. The best birds were Rufous Motmot and White-ruffed Manakin before we hurried off to find our delicious lunch waiting for us. (Complete eBird List) After the wonderful lunch, we were all feeling ambitious so we decided to hike up to the higher elevation areas of Rancho Naturalista.

The hike had some elevation change but wasn't too tough, and it produced some awesome sightings. We were surprised to happen upon a group of four Crested Guans high up in the trees. Just around the corner from the guans, we found 2 White-crowned Manakins on a known lek! (For those that don't know, a lek is a location that male birds go to in order to put on breeding displays for females.) We knew we still had quite a hike back to the hummingbird pools to watch the afternoon show so we made our way back as quickly as possible. It was at the pools that we got our first looks at the amazing Snowcap. While watching the hummingbirds, Harry, the guide from the lodge, found a Dull-mantled Antbird which was a lifer for our whole group! You can see our complete list from the afternoon (Complete eBird List).

The photo is a little blurry but it was the best I could do with this Rufous Motmot.

It was getting quite dark in the forest when we found this White-crowned Manakin. The photo isn't great but we did have amazing view of this species.
Our day ended with another incredible meal back at the lodge. Check back soon to hear more about Rancho Naturalista and the rest of our time there!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Whitefish Point-The Start of the Waterbird Count

Sunrise at Whitefish Point
I arrived at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last Thursday.  The waterbird count started on Friday so I have been spending each of the last few days out on the point.  Each day, I count all the migratory waterbirds that pass by or use the point.  The count has started out fairly slow but there have been a number of highlights.  

The waterbird shack at the point.
Throughout the day, the shorebirds and raptors have put on a show, so even when the count is slow there is some entertainment.  The most common bird I have been counting are Red-necked Grebes.  The numbers have been fairly low, averaging around 40 a day.  Common Loons have also been coming by in steady but low numbers.  Shorebirds have been interesting with ten species so far.  There is some great habitat at the point so hopefully this increases quickly.  The highlights have been Black-bellied Plovers, Piping Plover, and Baird's Sandpipers.

Juvenile Northern Goshawk
A Merlin, that like all Merlins, is super aggresive.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk that made a pass over the waterbird shack.
For daily updates from the point visit

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Whitefish Point Waterbird Count

This fall (August 15-November 15) I'll be conducting the waterbird count at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Whitefish Point is the premier spot on the Great Lakes for waterbird migration with 75-100,000 being counted during most fall migrations.  Among the large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and Red-necked Grebes that migrate by the point each fall; there is a chance for Sabine's Gulls or any of the Jaegers.  And if that's not enough almost any vagrant has the potential to show up at the point; crazy birds such as Lucy's Warbler and Common Ground-Dove have been seen.   Needless to say, it will be an interesting fall.

Visit the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory Waterbirds' blog to keep up with the bird sightings at the point this fall!

Here are some pics of a few of the species that will be flyin' by the point:

Long-tailed Duck-
Black Scoter
Common Loon
Surf Scoter