Friday, September 2, 2016

Faux Bloom Day

Images from around the garden on Sept 1 2016.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers

Yesterday was my wife's and my wedding anniversary. So what better celebration than getting up today before 3:00 am to go look at a little black and white bird that mainly stuck it's rump out at us?

Of course, it wasn't just any run-of-the-mill bird. It's the "near threatened" red-cockaded woodpecker and a lifer for both of us.

We joined a Virginia Society of Ornithology trip to Piney Grove Preserve in tidewater Virginia; about the only place to see them in the state. According to eBird there are have a few reported at other locations including a recently initiated population in the Great Dismal Swamp. But at Piney Grove they breed and the area is managed to provide the specific habitat that they require: older but living tall pine trees in an open, savanna area that experiences frequent fires. All of the known nesting locations are well recorded as is the breeding progress. So our guides, from the Nature Conservancy and the Center for Conservation Biology, led us directly to a nest that they knew would be busy. We arrived just as the sun started lightening up the sky and wandered through new undergrowth to get to a viewing site. The area was burned two months ago and was already showing significant regrowth.

On the walk over we flushed a nesting Towhee letting us get a quick look at four tiny eggs in a nest on the ground. This is where we were going to set up so we moved 100 ft further along so the bird could return.

The woodpeckers drill holes in live pines that are starting to suffer from a heartwood rot. They drill a hole into the center of the tree and then excavate a hole for the nest. They also drill small holes around the nest hole so that the side of the tree gets covered in sap. It is thought that this helps deter predators.

We watched the parents and helpers, non-breeding adults stay around and help out the dominant pair, bring food back to the nest several times.

We heard many other birds, like a bobwhite that called most of the time we were there, but only saw a few; like this summer tanager.

We then moved on to another site where we met a bird bander. He bands the birds when they are 6-10 days old. This helps the scientists track the birds as they move around and helps monitor numbers and genetic diversity. He had a light-wight ladder that he assembles as he climbs so he can climb up to the nest hole.
The ladder used to reach the nest is built piece by piece.

You can just see the fledgling in his hand.

He brought the three nestlings down to band them and we had the chance to see them. They are incredibly adorable.

At the last stop we saw a used turkey nest. There had been a burn 10 days ago and they saw the turkey on the nest so they cleared a fire line around the nest and protected it. By today the babies had hatched and left so there were only empty eggs left. You can see the burnt area in the upper right corner and the protected vegetation in the lower left.

All of this and we were back home before lunch. But a wonderful way to spend time with my wife. I'm sure we will have many more large and small adventures; many involving birds.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

This year marks the first year of the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas. Sponsored by the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Society of Ornithology, the BBA is an attempt to confirm the breeding status of a wide range of bird species in the state. My wife and I are participating by watching for breeding activity and then reporting our siting through eBird.
We have started by focusing on the breeding activity that goes on at the birding spots that we frequent including our yard.  So far this year we have eight confirmed breeders in our yard:

  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Carolina Wren
  • House Wren
  • American Robin
  • Brown Thrasher
  • House Finch
  • Red-winged Blackbird
This is one more than was found in our entire sector last time (late 80's). 

American Robin Fledgling
There are probably another dozen species that breed in or close to our yard that we just haven't confirmed yet. Like the Mourning Doves that use to nest next to our front door. They tried again in February and weren't successful and then the nest fell down in a storm. They were successful there several times so I'm sure they'll be nesting somewhere nearby, we just haven't seen signs of it yet. Or the Goldfinches that nest late in the summer. We'll have to keep an eye out for them. 

Here's hoping we surpass 20 breeders in the yard.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

South Florida - Warblers

In my previous post, I talked about the trip to South Florida my wife and I took to escape the winter doldrums. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the number of warblers that we saw there. I was probably stuck on the picture of warm, coastal areas and thinking of gulls and terns and shorebirds to properly consider how many warblers we would see. Sharon at least thought this way and convinced me we were more likely to get use out of our Warbler Guide than the Shorebird Guide. All told we saw 13 warbler species during the week. That's a decent spring haul. What an exciting winter find.

Our first stop, at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, rewarded us with six species including this Palm Warbler that watched us eat lunch.

We also had really nice views of a Black-and-white Warbler feeding. It grabbed several caterpillars near us and ate them. Unfortunately, it was always partially obscured and I couldn't get a good photo. Amazing to watch, nonetheless. We also saw a pretty Black-throated Green Warbler there.  

The Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens also rewarded us with six warblers including two ground-loving warblers: Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush. Right near the entrance of the gardens we heard beautiful singing and tracked down this Prairie Warbler.

Warblers were surprising abundant at the Dry Tortugas. There were many Palm Warblers there (no surprise as they seem to be the sparrows of south Florida). But also an American Redstart, some Yellow-rumped Warblers (about the only ones we see back in Virginia at this time), and Northern Parulas.

Ft. Zachery, in Key West, gave us this Orange-crowned Warbler. 

The final big warbler site was West Lake in the Everglades. There is a boardwalk that goes through a stand of mangroves and as we walked it we encountered a nice mixed flock moving through. Here we added a Black-throated Blue Warbler as well as more Black-and-white and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Seeing all of these spring birds in February really brightened the trip. For comparison, last April when we did our big day for the Birding Cup, we had only six warblers all day. And for all of May, we had 13 warbler species. 

My next post will talk about the remaining birds that we saw on the trip. Hope to see you there. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

South Florida - Lifers

This year my wife and I decided to get away from the dreary Virginia winter. While it is definitely nice to occasionally get 65-70 degree days and not deal with snow piling up all winter, we don't get the benefit of snow and the fun that comes with that. Instead, it is 35 degree rain. Not that I'm advocating for a move to Maine but it is still nice to get away somewhere where you can count on sun and warmth and eating outside is a real possibility.

After considering a couple of options we decided on a trip to the Florida keys and Everglades. The trip was really nice and the birding fantastic. This post will highlight the life birds and other amazing things we saw. The next post will talk about all of the warblers we saw. And there might be a third with other interesting birds and non-avian sightings. Plus a few misses.

What better way to start off a trip than to wake up to the squawk of a new bird. We flew into Miami on Saturday night so we stayed in southern Miami that night. First thing next morning Sharon hears this crazy sound and sees two large green birds fly past. By the time I get over there they have disappeared into a few trees. After a few minutes wait they come back again eventually settling in the rain gutter just above our room (Thanks Marriott for the upgrade to the top floor!).
Mitred Parakeet
 This is one of those "miscellaneous" birds for bird watchers. Obviously a really nice and pretty bird. But they aren't native to the area. They likely have descended from escaped, or released, pets. So they don't make the official ABA list of North American birds. But beautiful and exciting nonetheless.

 Next on our lifer list is the most amazing bird of the trip. The focus point of the trip was a visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park. We hoped to see a Magnificent Frigatebird out there. It seemed likely but we didn't want to get our hopes up too high. No problems there. From the parking garage in Key West where we were catching the boat to Dry Tortugas we saw our first frigatebird soar overhead. They are amazing birds and one of the largest birds we have on the east coast.
Magnificent Frigatebird
There were many more, like 250, when we got out to the islands of Dry Tortugas. Several would be floating on the wind right above Fort Jefferson and the main key. That is where I got most of my pictures of them.
More Frigatebirds
The male frigatebird has a large pouch of red skin that it inflates to attract females. With our spotting scope we could see a colony of frigatebirds nesting on a neighboring key and could pick out the little spots of red. Occasionally, the red skin patch could be seen as flew over.
Male Magnificent Frigatebird
A little closer than the frigatebird colony was an island full of nesting Sooty Terns and Brown Noddys. At the peak of breeding season there are apparently close to 40000 pairs of birds. We saw a few thousand and the noise was deafening.
As we were waiting for the boat to leave from the Dry Tortugas we saw a pair of Masked Boobies in the distance. They have a distinctive wing pattern so it was easy to pick out but poor views. We picked up 4 new life birds on the trip.

The next day we visited the Key West Botanical Gardens. A lovely little spot filled with bird life. In between watching warblers and a Western Kingbird, Sharon spotted a hawk overhead. It was a small buteo that was very white underneath with smart outlining on the wings: a Short-tailed Hawk. We would later see the dark morph version but the white one is stunningly beautiful.

Our next big collection of lifers came in the Everglades. We drove from Key West to the Everglades Thursday morning Our first stop was a spot just outside the park entrance called the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area. As we pull up there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. his is a bird of the southern plains. A small number winter at the very southern tip of Florida and the keys. The long flowing tail is easily discernible from a distance. But not to worry. On our way back out of the park that evening there were 8 birds sitting on the power lines.
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
The last lifer of the trip was practically the last bird we saw; definitely the last species added to our list. Early on our last day we had stopped at Paurotis Pond on the road to Flamingo. As we headed back to the car I saw a dove-like bird fly past us and thought there was a light spot on the head. But not a good view and Sharon didn't see it. So we stopped there again on our way out in the evening. This time I definitely saw a couple fly past but they were quick and Sharon was always looking in a different direction. Finally, as we talked with a couple of other birders we had a good pass by one that everyone got a good look at: a White-crowned Dove.
I ended the trip with 9 new life birds including the parakeet and a wild Muscovy Duck.

But in additional to the life birds, we saw lots of summer birds and coastal birds that we seldom get to see in February. But you will have to wait until the next installment for some of those.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Winter

This weekend Sharon and I joined the Williamsburg Bird Club and others for a boat trip to the islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We left out of Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach. The boat dock was opposite Pleasure House Point Park so we were able to see a different view of the flats in Lynnhaven Inlet as we waited for the boat to load and leave. There were many Greater Black-backed Gulls on the dock. One of them picked up a fish remains from a neighboring fish cleaning station. That brought out the thief in his companions. There was a lot of commotion.

And finally one of the gulls escaped with part of the fish for a quiet breakfast.

One the way out of the inlet we passed this pair of Brants. We were surprised that these were the only Brants seen during the day.

At Island #1 there were many hundreds of gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. Among the many gulls on the rocks we found this Lesser Black Backed Gull.

At Island #2 Sharon and I had our first life bird of the trip, Great Cormorants (the ones of the left edge).

At this island we had our first harbor seal

and Northern Gannet. I particularly like the shadow style of the image.

Island #3 held the best finds of the day. From a distance we could see a large number of seals hanging out on the rocks and swimming in the current.

One of the target birds for the trip was Harlequin Ducks. They like rocky shores of which Virginia is generally lacking. But the artificial islands of the bridge tunnel provides their desired habitat so many winters we will have a few hang out. They are one of the most interestingly colored birds of North America. Unfortunately, we ended up looking into the sun so the photos aren't great.

While searching for the ducks, Ernie spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake. Right afterwards most of the gulls flushed but resettled. It took several minutes but the bird was refound. This is a terrible picture but the all black wing tips are diagnostic so the picture wasn't a total waste of electrons.

On the way back in the crew threw some chum into the water. It attracted a lot of Great Black Backed Gulls and then probably a hundred Gannets. All the birds passed really close to the boat allowing for some interesting shots. Here are a few of my favorite photos.

The birds diving into the water were really near to see. Like the Great Black Backed Gull coming in for a landing

Or these gannets diving into the water after fish remains.

And the final great bird of the day was an Iceland Gull that joined the fray near the end.

We ended up with 32 species; each of us with one species the other person missed. Sharon's find was a Razorbill while mine was Brown-headed Cowbirds. I would have gladly traded my find for seeing her's.