Wednesday, June 7, 2017


A few weeks ago, my wife and I participated in our first true BioBlitz. Previously we have participated in what was called a BioBlitz, but was more a park survey. The previous ones consisted of guided walks for the public that were also trying to collect species lists for the local park system to produce guides. And they lasted about 4 hours; an hour each for 4 categories.

This BioBlitz was 24 hours long with with at least 9 taxa groups out surveying the whole of Newport News Park. The park, one of the largest city parks east of the Mississippi, is over 8000 acres. Teams started at 1:00 pm Saturday and ended at 1:00 pm Sunday. We, or course, were part of the birding team; although my wife stuck around to help with insects of the night. More on that later.

I was with a group from the Old Dominion University Tick Lab. We explored a part of the park that the public seldom gets to. The area has a couple of power line cuts, several vernal ponds, and a remotely controlled airplane strip. Starting in the early afternoon on a warm late spring morning is not prime bird finding behavior. And the birds were doing well not to be found. But this is a BioBlitz, not a BirdBlitz, so we were happy to find this luna moth that was just emerging.
Emergent Luna Moth crawling across the ground

Emergent Luna Moth waiting it its wings to expand
How lucky were were to find it while it was still trying to find a place to pump up its wings.

This cricket frog and turtle gave us more herps than birds for a while.

We had collected a few species of birds, including a tufted titmouse making a most unusual call that stumped me for about 10 minutes, when we found this great horned owl sitting in the distance. I had to walk a ways off of the fire road to get this picture.

Interestingly, this was one of 4 owl individuals that were seen during the BioBlitz. We had a special owl walk scheduled for Saturday evening and got none seen or heard on that. We ended up with more frogs on the owl walk than owls. Birds can be so unpredictable.

The weather was odd that week with the temperature really dropping in the evening and wind picking up. As I mentioned, while I went on the owl walk, my wife stayed to help with the insects. Our local bug-guy had set up a white sheet with a bright light on it to attract night insects. But it was so cold and breezy that There wasn't much attracted to the sheets; just a bunch of tiny moths.The Oowl walk was also very slow. In fact, we got none. We did manage a couple of bats on the owl walk. One of the participants had a microphone that connected to her phone that picked up bat echolocation calls and could use the data from that to identify the species. It was a really cool set up.  One of the bats flew in close and we could see it in the dim evening light. A total of 7 bat species were identified (I don't think all at the owl walk). That's amazing.

Sunday, my wife and I headed out together in the Grafton Ponds section of the park. A place we have visited several times before.

We saw a lot of birds that were seen the previous day. The BioBlitz is focused on counting the number of species, not the number of individuals, that are found in the park. We enjoyed the repeat birds, especially ones that I didn't see the previous day, but we tried to keep moving to find new ones (my wife's team had much better luck with birds on Saturday getting 55 species to my teams 15). New ones Sunday included a red-headed woodpecker and summer tanager.

We also spied these mating insects (hanging scorpionflies).

Perhaps our best find was this:


We captured it in a plastic container and took it back to BioBlitz HQ. The bug-guy, who was doing all invertebrates, was over the moon. He was going to keep this leech for his classroom.

All told, the BioBlitz recorded over 600 species, people are still doing identifications on some of the invertebrates and plants that were collected. We had over 120 people participate. And for birds, we tallied 87 species. I had checked eBird and identified 95 species that had appeared in more than 5% of checklists for the city. Figuring some of the 95 are shorebirds and others with restricted habitats, we did well.

Here's looking forward to the next blitz.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Nice Paddle

My wife and I decided to enjoy the long Memorial Day weekend with a short kayak trip today. It was the first time we had had the boats out this season. Which meant a lot of work cleaning out all of the junk, especially empty boxes, from under the kayaks in the garage so we could get them out. The tide was running high this morning and the forecast was for rain in the afternoon, so after an enjoyable breakfast of homemade bread and coffees, we packed the car and headed out. We wanted to avoid the likely boat traffic of the holiday weekend so we didn't go to our usual put-in. Instead, we took advantage of a friend who had offered to let us launch from her dock. From there, we could ride the high water south through a marsh to a little sandy beach right behind a large marina. The beach is only accessible from the marsh during high tides.

We leave Janet's dock, turn under the road we drove in on and BAM there are two bald eagles, a red-headed woodpecker, and two more kayakers. We point out the closer eagle to them and they are impressed. It is just sitting up there for all to admire. We see what looks like an eagle nest a little further down creek but couldn't verify that it was in use (a missed opportunity to verify them as breeding in the area but I imagine there will be other opportunities or maybe someone has already confirmed it for the VA Breeding Bird Atlas.)

The water was really high today. Sometimes when we have been back here it is tough getting through the winding channel. Today we can occasionally see the tops of grasses sticking above the water along the edge. We probably "off-roaded" several times and didn't realize it.

Sharon stopped and picked up some trash and collected a few friends. Periwinkles were everywhere trying to hold on to anything above water, even an old potato chip bag. They rode with us for a while.

Red-headed woodpecker
 There were also at least a couple of gull-billed terns. These two were waiting out the winds on someone's pier. Until a few years ago, I hadn't seen one. This year I saw 8 on the spring bird count. And now 2-3 back in here. I wonder if they are expanding their range?

Gull-billed terns
We paused for a few minutes on the sandy beach which was our turn-around point. Several years ago we paddled out here and had lunch and then waded into the creek and found a seahorse. Today it was too cool and windy for anything like that. We both had long-sleeved shirts on. And it was a good thing as the wind coming off the bay was quite chilled. We were waiting out a jet skier who had passed us going inland and we could see returning towards the marina. And we waited. And waited. And then he popped out a different opening in the marsh. After waiting for another boat to approach, they also landed on the beach, we headed across the inlet from the bay for where the jet skier had emerged. At least we had some circumnavigation in for the day. We then poked around a few side channels until the wind and clouds told us it was time to had back. Along the way one of Sharon's periwinkles calls out to a friend so we pull over and drop them off. They will be happier here than back on the dock.

It was a nice paddle to get back in he swing of things. And we got home just in time. It turned from sprinkles to heavy rain as we pulled into the driveway. At least it washed the salt water off the boats.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hummingbirds of Costa Rica

One of the great joys of birding in Costa Rica, and probably anywhere in Central and South America, is the great number of hummingbird species that can be found. Here is a small collection of the 12 species that we saw.

Crowned Woodnymph at Villa Blanca

Green-crowned Brilliant at Villa Blanca
Green-crowned Brilliant at Villa Blanca
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird at Lost Iguana

White-necked Jacobin at Lost Iguana

Monday, March 6, 2017

Birding Villa Blanca

My previous post started talking about the birding vacation my wife and I took to Costa Rica. This post will focus on the birding, and other nature findings, at our first stop, Hotel Villa Blanca.

Villa Blanca sports 36 cabins around the property plus a main building and several smaller outer buildings. Around the property are several self-guided trails plus a few trails are only available for guided tours or by special permission. In the day and a half that we were there we covered only a small bit of the trails.

Common Chlorospingus next to our cabin
There was a lawn area between the main building and our cabin. Most of the time we headed out, there would be new birds here to stop us. On our first walk around the property we encountered a mixed flock of birds here. The rather common and difficult to say common chlorospingus (formerly the much more comfortable common bush-tanager). They were probably the most common bird we encountered here. And seeing one of them foretold many other birds coming soon. In this garden area there was always a bananaquit happy to join in the ruckus and a rufous-tailed hummingbird looking for someone to run off.


Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
On our first morning the fog was heavy; we could barely make out the singing melodious blackbird across the path from our cabin. Then as we start up the stairs and across the lawn to breakfast this bird landing on the railing just ahead of us.

This orange-bellied trogon was hawking insects from the railing and low lampposts.

At the far-side of the lawn was the start of one of the self-guided tours that led to a hummingbird garden.

The first 50 ft of the trail was always productive. Our first time on it gave us looks at very good looks at several hummingbirds including an unexpected fiery-throated hummingbird. The fiery-throated is supposed to be at higher altitudes but after breeding they sometimes stray beyond their normal territories. While I didn't get a photograph, we did get excellent looks and could eliminate all other possibilities. On both eBird and the local checklist, this was a first for the property. And we had been in country less than 24 hours.

It was late in the breeding season so the hummingbirds were still being protective of the feeders and flowers (they really like the porterweed) so the density of hummers was low. But the variation was still high; at least for us.

There is a research center on site and on the second afternoon we wandered in and talked with one of the researchers, Estafan. The researchers also act as the nature guides on the property. Estafan looked up possible reports of the fiery-throated hummingbird for us. He then gave us permission to walk any of the closed off trains and suggested the long Henri Pittier trail. This is such a good location that it has its own eBird hotspot. It was a very nice trail but much less used and maintained than the others so we never made it all he way around. We added another 20 or so birds on this trail including another orange-bellied trogon. As we returned we saw a long line of leaf-cutter ants and discovered the purpose of some large mounds we had passed.

Leaf-cutter Ants on the March

Leaf-cutter Ant Mound


The mounds are part of the ants' nests. We found out later that the brown substance that we thought was dirt is actually the cellulose from the leaf bits that aren't broken down. The ants bring back bits of leaves to feed to fungus that they farm. They eat the fungus, not the leaves. But the fungus can't break down the all of the cellulose in the leaves. So the ants discard it just outside the nest holes.

Red-eyed tree frog
On our second, and last, night at Villa Blanca we had arranged for a night tour. We started by looking for some nighttime birds and saw a common pauraque flying low of the grass catching bugs. Our guide, Jave, knew of a tree that often had roosting birds in it and we found brown-hooded parrots and grey-headed chachalaca. We searched all around with flashlights and found several small tree frogs. Right before the end of the walk Jave tracked down a red-eyed tree frog; the iconic rain forest frog.

And as a bonus, we got to go with Jave to release a boa constrictor that Estafan had found earlier in the day. The snake really didn't want to go and Jave had to try several times to get it to release from his arm. Luckily, the are slow constrictors and probably any able-body human could unwind it as quickly as it wound itself around you.

Boa Constrictor
There is much of Villa Blanca that we didn't get to visit and I'm sure many more birds to be seen. We saw 51 species there over 10 checklists. It is some place we would love to return to and spend more time at. There are many more trails to be explored.
Green-crowned Brilliant

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Costa Rican Cloud Forest

This winter my wife and I took a trip to Costa Rica to get away from the cold weather and celebrate our anniversary. Our flights to San Jose went well with no delays. It is nice to go south and get to such a different environment without an exceedingly long flight. It was actually shorter to get to San Jose, Costa Rica than San Jose, California for us.

We arrived late in the evening and had decided to stay in San Jose. After getting our luggage, some money, a local SIM card for my phone, and checking in with the tour company, we exited customs to a large crowd welcoming visitors. We found our driver for the night. He was a the back of the crowd and we kept making eye contact as we progressed through the throngs and found some space.

One of the very nice things we found in Costa Rica was the infrastructure for tourists. We were able to easily arrange transfers so we were able to skip renting a car. It made moving from one location to another easy and relaxing and there was really only one time we might have missed having a car. But we got a bus that time with minimal waiting so it wasn't bad at all. Our first driver was Rudy; he was very friendly and informative for the 30 minute drive to the hotel. The Central Valley, made up of three cities, is home to nearly half of the country's 5 million inhabitants. Outside here the biggest population centers you will find are towns. Even at night traffic was heavy. Apparently it is horrible during the day; especially since they are currently replacing a major bridge between San Jose and the airport.

Our hotel the first night was Grano de Oro. They greeted us with a cold fruit drink in a champagne glass (something we would find at two of the other three places we stayed). The room was comfortable and we immediately tucked in for the night.

In the morning we could hear a bird calling outside our window and water running. When we left the room to get breakfast we discovered the source of the water noise: an indoor fountain. The hallways were full of tropical plants and there were several open-air courtyards, including the seating area of the restaurant. I had the standard Costa Rican fare of casado: rice, beans, fried plantains, and fruit. There were many fruit juices to choose from including a couple of fruits we were familiar with. I think we both had mango.

Chestnut-Collared Sparrow (not from the restaurant but Villa Blanca)

While sitting there eating we had our first Costa Rican bird; a chestnut-collared sparrow. Luckily, we had studied up (more on that in a later post) and could easily identify it. Number 1 of 194 species I would see there. A walk around the block picked up three more species.

As we walked to the lobby to check out we met our driver for the next leg. This was the first of several cases of good timing of us showing up just as our driver appeared. We had heard a lot of "Tico time," but only once did we have to wait for someone to show up.

Our next stop was Villa Blanca in the Los Angeles Cloud Forest near San Ramon.  Again we were met with drinks. Our cabin wasn't quite ready so we had a short walk around and had lunch. At lunch we saw a green hermit hummingbird, flying around the outdoor seats. The view from up here was amazing. And the cabins had fireplaces for the cool, damp nights.

Clouds moving in at Villa Blanca

Enjoying some simple warmth

Being in the cloud forest, most evenings the clouds start moving in around 5-6 pm. And when it comes, it comes quickly. Below are two views of the chapel on the property seen just as the fog starts gathering and then about 10 minutes later.

Next up will be the wonderful birding that we did at Villa Blanca.
Pura Vida.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mixed WinterFlock

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with Poison Ivy Berries

This past weekend, my wife and I decided to do a "longer" bird hike in preparation for an upcoming trip. We tend to be slow birders; we walk along scanning for activity and pausing to see and count everything we come across. This makes for a fun birding experience with a high amount of birds but we do tend to cover limited ground. Walking a mile in two hours is not uncommon. We can easily spend 45-60 minutes walking the 300 yards to the back of our property and returning. But on our upcoming trip we expect to be doing some extended walking and wanted to get that feel back. I also received a new backpack for Christmas and I wanted to try it out for more than an hour at a time.

We headed over to a local park with a five-mile multi-use trail around a small lake. This trail is very popular with runners and dog-walkers so it can be a bit frustrating at times to bird the area. But the spot is known to get good collections of birds. When we go, we usually only over a short stretch of the trail and then return along a parallel road instead of doing the whole circumnavigation of the lake. This time we told ourselves we would focus on getting all the way around and only stop when we saw more than just passing activity. Success was relative. It still took us over four hours to do the whole loop.

At one point we stopped where we often see a range of sparrows in scrubby undergrowth. The sparrows weren't coming out but we did see some bluebirds in distant trees. And then it happened. A mixed winter flock settled down upon us. In a tree about 30 ft away a yellow-bellied sapsucker settled on a poison ivy vine for some tasty berries (they seem very popular but so far I have resisted the temptation try them). And then an eastern bluebird flew in just below. I was busy getting my camera out of the bag, but my wife saw the two birds give each other a look and then settle back into their feeding. Luck for me, they were close enough to be in the same frame.

These two were soon joined by a yellow-rumped warbler and brown creeper.

The creeper tended to stay hidden on the far side of the tree but then flew to a neighboring one that gave a much better view.
Brown Creeper Creeping up a Tree
In winter, many small birds travel around together in mixed flocks to feed. They gain the benefit of security in numbers. Chickadees seem to act as security guards always on the look out for threats and more than happy to raise the alarm. Also, since they aren't competing for stable food sources and territories to raise young, the group is more likely to find good food sources. There is always a mix of insectavores, seed-eaters, and omnivores. Each filling their own niche.

In this flock were both kinglets that we get in this area. Below is the golden-crown kinglet showing off its beautiful crown as well as the yellow streaking on the wings.

And the ruby-crowned kinglet (eye Ring = Ruby-crowned) showing a bit of its crown (orangish dot on the top of its head) that is usually kept hidden.

I had never noticed until looking at these photographs that both kinglets have bright yellow pads on their feet. Looking back at the above ones you can see the yellow on the feet.
Golden-crowned kinglet taking flight showing the yellow pads on its feet
While there, another birder came up and joined us. She was from Texas, but visiting her sister nearby and was still learning the Virginia winter birds. So we helped her work through the flock that also included chickadees, titmice, white-throated sparrows, goldfinches, and some other woodpeckers.
As a final treat, here is a bluebird landing to grab an insect from the leaf litter.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Faux Bloom Day

Images from around the garden on Sept 1 2016.