Tuesday, January 29, 2013

January 28: Pelagic Trip!

Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet adult

I spent 12 hours in a boat on the Atlantic Ocean, far from the Florida shore, doing what is called “pelagic birding.”  (It's just a fancy word meaning we're out far, far from shore.) The cruise was the final field trip for the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival, and was the perfect way for me to close my Florida adventure before starting the long drive home.

It was possible I could add a bird or two to my lifelist on this trip, and I’m always excited about that possibility, but the Atlantic Ocean is vast and even with 110 pairs of eyes looking every which way, it’s easy to miss birds. So I went out open to anything, with only one actual goal—to take at least one or two good photos of the Northern Gannet, a bird I figured we couldn’t possibly miss. 

Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet
Gannets belong to the family Sulidae, along with boobies. Boobies nest in southern seas, but gannets breed on rocky cliffs in the North Atlantic, where they are the largest breeding seabird. Two thirds of the world’s gannets nest in the U.K., mostly in Scotland. The rest breed mostly off Canada, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.  Gannets breed far from the Florida coast, but a great many migrate here in winter, and young birds remain on the Atlantic off Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico for two or more years before returning north to begin breeding.

The gannet is quite abundant still, so is not listed as a bird of conservation concern, but I consider it one, because the way we’re trashing the ocean is making all ocean life so vulnerable. On our cruise, although my eyes were mostly focused all about searching for birds, I did spot three bits of plastic trash floating about.

Trash just floating about in the ocean

 We also saw two container ships. Most boats are far, far more polluting than automobiles, but we don’t seem to worry about boating and ship pollution at all. We cleaned up auto emissions after it became clear that lead in the air we breathe was hurting humans, but we don’t seem to care what we put into salt water. Container ships are especially polluting because they burn bunker fuel—the filthy sludge left over from crude oil after gasoline, propane, and kerosene have been refined out. Every article we purchase from China is cheaper than what we can manufacture in America not only because labor is so cheap and there are few environmental controls to require companies to minimize pollution, but also because we can transport those items to America so cheaply via these horrifically polluting vessels. And because all countries share the ocean, there’s little any country could do to clean up the mess, even if any country wanted to, which none seem to.

Northern Gannet
It's so weird to see this bird of rocky wild islands of the North Atlantic flying so close to massive developments. But where else can they go in winter?
The gannet was the bird most often collected dead or badly oiled after the BP oil spill. I was very disturbed when I attended a “media event” at one of the rehab centers following the spill to hear the spokesman from the US Fish and Wildlife Service explain that the reason every gannet thus far collected was an immature was a mystery, but that apparently the adults had figured out how to avoid oil plumes. No—the reason was that all the adults were far from the Gulf when the spill occurred—already wending their way north to their breeding grounds. I couldn’t believe he didn’t at least look the bird up in a field guide to figure this out. But like everything else about the spill, the media seemed to swallow everything BP said without questioning it.

Northern Gannet getting an examination
This poor first-year Northern Gannet had been oiled in the BP oil spill, and was being cared for  at a rehab center in Alabama.

On my pelagic trip, I tried not to think too much about trash and oil spills and bunker fuel and the many other ways we pollute the ocean while I was watching gannets. They’re gorgeous in flight or swimming, and I managed to get dozens of reasonably good photos of them. They were gathering near the boat because the crew was “chumming”—that is, tossing out fish oil and fish guts and popcorn out the back to lure in gulls, which often attract curious seabirds from a distance.

Tossing out "chum"--a goopy mix of fish guts, oil, popcorn, and other delicacies.
Tossing out "chum"

Gulls following boat
Gulls following the boat to gobble up "chum"

The gannets watching this were diving from only ten or twenty feet above the water, though when actively fishing, may dive from as much as a hundred feet above the surface. They manage this because their nostrils are located in their mouth rather than externally, they have air sacs under the skin of their face and chest that act as bubble wrap to soften the blow when they hit water, and their eyes are located forward, providing binocular vision to accurately judge when they’ll hit. They dive so frequently that the word “gannet” has come to refer to a glutton.

Northern Gannet
Next time I'll try to take an action shot that's in focus.
We saw dozens of gannets at close range until we got out far from shore—right when we started seeing sailfish and flying fish, we stopped seeing them. I got just a couple of slightly out-of-focus photos of gannets plunging, arrow-like, into the ocean, one of the most spectacular things they do. I didn’t see any of their dives from way up, though I’ve seen this at a distance from shore—next time I set out off the coast in Florida, I’ll take a fishing boat that sticks closer to where gannets are fishing so I can get better photos of their dives. That’s the coolest thing about birding: even as we try to see more birds, we enjoy seeing every little thing about the birds we’ve already seen, too.

Bridled Tern
Bridled Tern
I didn’t see any lifers on this trip—the distant Brown Booby and Cory’s Shearwater and the closer Red Phalaropes, Bridled Terns, and jaegers were already on my lifelist. But we did see a baby Green Sea Turtle release, and got glimpses at wild adult sea turtles.

Baby Green Sea Turtle
Baby Green Seat Turtle about to be released gently into the big big ocean
Sea Turtle
Adult sea turtle seen from the boat

I reached my goal on this perfect day, and will head home with happy memories of my favorite seabird and a lovely voyage.

Northern Gannet
Mission accomplished!

I'm not sure how many miles the boat traveled. My own auto mileage is now up to 2632. I added nine species for the year:

  1. Cory's Shearwater
  2. Brown Booby
  3. Red Phalarope
  4. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  5. Bridled Tern
  6. Black Tern
  7. Pomarine Jaeger
  8. Parasitic Jaeger
  9. Razorbill (These poor birds are also being found dead or dying along the Florida coast this year--they are probably here due to the hurricane, and somehow I didn't feel very happy seeing this one.)

January 27: Blue Heron Sewage Treatment Plant, Merritt Island, and moving on to Daytona

I started out my morning in a literal fog. I checked out of my motel and drove a few blocks to the Blue Heron Sewage Treatment facility, where birders are welcome! I added four new species there:

  1. King Rail
  2. Sora
  3. Purple Gallinule
  4. Swamp Sparrow
Then I stopped at Merritt Island's visitor center one last time before heading on to the Brevard County Community College to give my program about the herons viewed in Cornell's nest cam. It was the last regular program of the festival, at lunchtime when people were packing up, so I can blame that on the poor attendance--about a dozen people showed up in the rather large auditorium. Oh, well--I prefer intimate little gatherings anyway.

Then it was time to wend my way up toward Daytona so I wouldn't waste too many extra miles driving back and forth to New Smyrna Beach, where the pelagic trip would be leaving from. En route I FINALLY saw one Black Skimmer, and when I reached my hotel room, got my first gannet!
  1. Northern Gannet
  2. Black Skimmer
My year's total is now 173.

January 26: Enchanted Forest Sanctuary field trips

For the past few years, Joe Swingle and I have led a field trip for "beginners" at Brevard County's lovely Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, where Joe is a naturalist. This year we led two. Bill Thompson from Bird Watcher's Digest came along on one to help. Between field trips, I went back to Merritt Island briefly, where I saw the male hummer who's been visiting the feeders at the visitor center.

New birds, bringing my total to 167:

  1. Eastern Screech-Owl (I heard it make the whinny call twice. Archimedes has been calling lately, and my missing him is probably why my ears picked it out.)
  2. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  3. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  4. Orange-crowned Warbler

Friday, January 25, 2013

January 25: Moore Cultural Center and Merritt Island

Led a field trip to the Moore Cultural Center. People there are interested in making the grounds into a welcoming bit of habitat. After the field trip and a bit of lunch, I went to Merritt Island, to the Visitor Center, along the Wildlife Drive, and to the Scrub-Jay area. Brought my total to 163 with these new species:
  1. Eurasian Wigeon
  2. American Wigeon
  3. Northern Pintail
  4. American Avocet
  5. Greater Yellowlegs
  6. Lesser Yellowlegs

January 24: Viera Wetlands!

I spent the entire morning, from about 8:15 until 2 pm, at the Viera Wetlands and the "Click Ponds" that start near the entrance going the other direction. Had wonderful looks at a river otter and a family of raccoons, as well as plenty of birds. My total is now 157 thanks to these new species:

  1. Mottled Duck
  2. Blue-winged Teal
  3. Green-winged Teal
  4. Ring-necked Duck
  5. Wild Turkey
  6. American Bittern
  7. Least Bittern
  8. Glossy Ibis
  9. Common Gallinule
  10. American Coot
  11. Limpkin
  12. Barred Owl
  13. Tree Swallow
  14. Barn Swallow
  15. Marsh Wren
  16. Common Yellowthroat
  17. Savannah Sparrow
  18. Painted Bunting

January 23: A Scrub-Jay Day

This was a wonderful day! I started out at the Florida Scrub-Jay Trail, then moseyed to Lake Kissimmee State Park, then had to get to my son's place in Davenport where we had dinner, and then I headed on to Titusville. I'm just posting the basic statistics right now, but will add photos and a lot more information about the day and places ASAP. I had 11 new species, bringing my total to 139. New species:

  1. Northern Harrier
  2. Loggerhead Shrike
  3. White-eyed Vireo
  4. Blue-headed Vireo
  5. Florida Scrub-Jay
  6. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  7. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  8. Pine Warbler
  9. Eastern Towhee
  10. Bachman's Sparrow
  11. Red-winged Blackbird

January 21-22: Day at Disney and driving

I wish the management of Disney World had a naturalist at each theme park pointing out the cool wild birds around. I didn't get any year birds at Disney or in the Orlando area (not after yesterday's Hooded Merganser, anyway), and didn't see any new ones along the drive back to Sarasota where I said farewell to Mr. B and headed on to the Florida Scrub-Jay Consortium, where my dear friends Bruce and Cathy Brown are doing admirable work trying to get private landowners to work together to manage property for Florida Scrub-Jays. I got there quite late in the day, and though I spotted one in the distance, decided to wait till I see it better tomorrow before I count it. I'm scrambling to catch up on posts for people who want to know what I've been seeing, but will write a lot more about Bruce and Cathy's work, and why they deserve our support, as soon as I can. New bird (oh, well--had to see them eventually) brought my total to 128:

  1. Brown-headed Cowbird

January 20: Longboat Key and on to Orlando

I took a short stroll on a beach on Longboat Key near Sarasota this morning. It was quiet bird-wise and some little kid was chasing shorebirds. I told him and his parents that these birds travelled thousands of miles to rest here, but they said there are thousands of miles of beaches they could move to. Oh, well. THAT was depressing! The beach is beautiful.

Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone (They use that cool wedged beak to turn over stones!)
Royal Terns with one Sandwich Tern
Royal Terns with one Sandwich Tern in back.
Willets resting up before the little boy chased them away
Doin' the Sanderling Stretch
Sandwich Tern
Sandwich Tern
Ruddy Turnstone eating a very dead fish, with a Sanderling sneaking in for little bits.
The Sanderling kept creeping in and taking tiny bites before the Ruddy Turnstone chased him away. Fish for breakfast!
Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover
 Mr. Borkowski and I headed off to Orlando for my personal "Take Your Fifth Grade Teacher to Disney World Day." He spotted my year Cattle Egrets along our drive, and in back of our hotel in Kissimmee, there were Hooded Mergansers, so oddly enough, I got a year bird in one of the most developed parts of the state. Joey came to the hotel where we ate dinner together. He took this photo of me and Mr. B.

My new birds brought my total to 127:
  1. Hooded Merganser
  2. Cattle Egret
  3. Sandhill Crane
  4. Spotted Sandpiper
  5. Sandwich Tern

January 19: Sanibel Island

Every time I come to Florida I see yet more housing developments and retail malls sprouting up, even as I see foreclosures and shopping strips that have been abandoned. But development continues apace, and birds crowd into what's left.

The people on Sanibel Island seem to realize how essential for wildlife their shoreline is. Once you cross the bridge onto the island, you can pull over in many places to get onto the shoreline. The only development for a long stretch is occasional restrooms and picnic tables, along with a fairly narrow stretch of drivable sand far enough from the actual beach for shorebirds to cope. Dogs are only allowed on-leash, too, which is wonderful because these white sand beaches are exactly where Piping and Snowy Plovers gather in winter. I was there at high tide, the trickiest time to find many of the shorebirds, and I only got brief, distant looks at two before they flew off, but even a glimpse at these adorable little birds has the power to make me smile all day.

I was headed for Ding Darling--the nickname birders give to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. How did it get its name?

One of America’s most famous political cartoonists during the Great Depression and the years of the Roosevelt administration was Jay Norwood Darling. While he attended Beloit College, he started signing his artwork simply a contraction of his last name, turning “Darling” into "D’ing."  Soon everyone was calling him “Ding.”

Darling’s two passions in life were politics and conservation. He was given the Pulitzer Prize twice, in 1924 and 1943, for editorial cartoons. On the conservation side, he founded the National Wildlife Federation, conceived the Federal Duck Stamp program and drew the first Duck Stamp, and for a time headed the U.S. Biological Survey, which evolved into the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island named for him protects one of America’s largest remaining undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. 

When I got to the refuge, I’d barely cracked my car door open before the meows of Gray Catbirds were greeting my ears. I walked a bit around the parking area by the Visitor Center, looking for songbirds, and then drove the Wildlife Loop, a one-way road going along wonderful habitat. I got splendid looks and photos of two of the refuge’s iconic birds, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Anhinga. Despite the high tide, there were a few large groups of shorebirds, including Black-bellied, Semipalmated, and Wilson’s Plovers, Dunlins, Short-billed Dowitchers, Red Knots, and about 500 Willets—more than I’d ever seen in a single place before. Willets are a rather drab gray when resting or running, but the moment they open their wings—wow. The striking black and white pattern is absolutely beautiful.

One loon rested in a shallow area not far from the first group of shorebirds. It looked rather sick—botulism killed a great many loons in late summer and fall on the Great Lakes this year, and I’m afraid this bird may have been a late casualty of the disease. Four Roseate Spoonbills flew over, two landing pretty far out for photos but near enough to enjoy the bright pink contrasting with all the white egrets they joined. Every species of heron and egret native to Florida gave me decent looks along the wildlife drive. I ended the morning with over 60 species, 40 of them new, boosting the number of species seen on my Conservation Big Year to 122. This does not count the feral domesticated Muscovy Ducks I saw along the drive, though at some point someone will show that they're established. The new species:

  1. Northern Shoveler
  2. Common Loon
  3. Pied-billed Grebe
  4. American White Pelican
  5. Brown Pelican
  6. Great Blue Heron
  7. Snowy Egret
  8. Tricolored Heron
  9. Reddish Egret
  10. Green Heron
  11. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  12. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  13. White Ibis
  14. Roseate Spoonbill
  15. Osprey
  16. Black-bellied Plover
  17. Wilson's Plover
  18. Semipalmated Plover
  19. Piping Plover
  20. Killdeer
  21. Willet
  22. Ruddy Turnstone
  23. Red Knot
  24. Sanderling
  25. Western Sandpiper
  26. Least Sandpiper
  27. Dunlin
  28. Short-billed Dowitcher
  29. Bonaparte's Gull
  30. Laughing Gull
  31. Caspian Tern
  32. Forster's Tern
  33. Royal Tern
  34. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  35. Common Ground-Dove
  36. Belted Kingfisher
  37. Fish Crow
  38. House Wren
  39. Gray Catbird
  40. Boat-tailed Grackle
After a lovely day, I drove back up to Sarasota, to have dinner with Mr. Borkowski and two of his friends, Chuck and Judy. I stayed overnight at their place on Longboat Key.

January 18: Florida!

I drove from Cordele, GA, to Fort Myers, FL, with a dinner stop in Sarasota with my fifth grade teacher, Arthur Borkowski! The only birding I did all day was what I could see from the car and at various rest stops, and it was dark by the time I left Sarasota, but I had pretty good luck at the run-of-the-mill Florida rest stops, just wandering around the periphery of the parking lots, and going on a nice little walking path at one. So I added 13 species, bringing my year total to 82:

  1. Wood Stork
  2. Double-crested Cormorant
  3. Anhinga
  4. Great Egret
  5. Little Blue Heron
  6. Red-shouldered Hawk
  7. Eastern Phoebe
  8. Carolina Wren
  9. Northern Mockingbird
  10. Palm Warbler
  11. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  12. Yellow-throated Warbler (This one was so close that I instantly regretted my policy of not lugging my big camera to every bathroom stop)
  13. Chipping Sparrow

January 17: Drive day

Drove 554 miles today, from Louisburg, KY, to Cordele, GA, during on-and-off sleet and snow and then rain. So not many new birds, but did add a few, bringing my total to 69:

  1. Turkey Vulture
  2. Black Vulture
  3. Common Grackle

January 16: Morton Arboretum and a driving day

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow at the Morton Arboretum

In 1975, when I was a brand new birder, soon after I saw my first chickadee, my husband and I visited the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. That’s where I saw my very first crow and Canada Goose, which brought my life list up to seven. Later that same year I added my lifer Brown Creeper at the arboretum, and the next spring I saw my lifer Orchard Oriole there, so I have very happy memories of the place.

This week I was in Aurora, Illinois, visiting relatives as I wend my way toward Florida, and on my way out of town I couldn’t help but stop at the Morton Arboretum for a little walk. I could only spend a couple of hours there, but since I’m doing a Conservation Big Year, it seemed important to highlight this place that works so hard to preserve the trees that birds need. I walked through the beautiful elm exhibit, which seemed especially poignant since one of my favorite birds, the Baltimore Oriole, was once so associated with elms. This being winter, there were no orioles to be found, but hundreds of robins and at least a dozen Cedar Waxwings provided ample evidence of the value of fruit trees for birds. The temperature didn’t get much above 15 degrees and it was very windy, but cold isn’t a deterrent for these birds as long as they have enough food.

The other most abundant bird at the Morton Arboretum on my short walk was the Canada Goose. On Russ’s and my first visit there in March 1975, people in the visitor center told me how thrilled they were because a pair of geese had nested there the previous year. They said a local rehabber had released a permanently flightless goose in an arboretum pond where the water stayed open all winter, and he or she managed to attract a mate. Come spring, the flighted goose probably wanted to take off for parts unknown, but geese are exceptionally loyal and committed to their mates, so the pair made the best of things, raising their young at the arboretum. Because they couldn’t migrate together, they didn’t teach their young to migrate. Year after year, they raised more young, some moved on with their new partners while others remained at the arboretum, having found partners willing to be non-migratory, and the population grew. Geese happen to be one of the few bird species that graze on and can digest grasses, and manicured lawns provide not just food but wonderfully safe places to bring goslings, where any lurking predators are easily seen. And geese are such sociable birds that wild migratory geese started joining urban groups, learning to relish the same amenities. It’s hard for people younger than me to realize that urban geese are a relatively new phenomenon, but this is how geese populated urban parks throughout the country. Even though Canada Geese are proof that there can be too much of a good thing, I was very happy to see them at the Morton Arboretum, where I’d first discovered them.

Few birds were out in the open in the cold, but one brave Song Sparrow popped up briefly, it’s feathers completely puffed up to provide insulation. The biting wind quickly sent him back into thick vegetation, and my own shivering made it easier to return to my own sheltering car and the long drive ahead.  I’d added a few new birds for the year, and more importantly, had reconnected with one of the wonderful places that gave me so many treasured experiences.

I'm up to 66 for the year. I added:

  1. Eastern Bluebird
  2. Cedar Waxwing
  3. Song Sparrow

January 15: Day of rest in Aurora, Illinois

Well, it was a day of rest from birding, but not from birds. I spent the day at the school my cousin Dan Satinover's daughter Maddie attends. The fourth grade classes are starting an owl unit, and so I presented to all five classes in three presentations. It was exhausting but fun. Then I spent the night in the Justin Bieber room. (Why am I glad my spellcheck has never heard of him?)

I had just a few species between Maddie's house and the school, so my total remains 63 species for the year. It was wonderful spending a couple of evenings with a lovely family.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

January 14: Birding around Madison, Wisconsin

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl (not an individual I saw this year)

I do most of my birding alone, but every now and then it’s nice to spend a morning with a birding buddy. I got to spend this Monday morning with one of my best birding friends, though oddly enough, we’d never actually birded together before. Mike McDowell is one of the world’s premier digiscopers, and the kind of birder I consider the cream of the crop. He’s intimately knowledgeable about one place, the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, Wisconsin, which he visits over and over throughout each year. Not only does he know all the regular birds found there, but also he discovers rarities like nesting Yellow-breasted Chats, and he’s taken gorgeous photos of many of these birds. This year I’m highlighting places and people important for bird conservation, so I made a special point to spend some time with Mike at Pheasant Branch.

Sunday I drove from Duluth to Middleton, and Mike and I got together Monday morning before sunrise. First thing he took me straight to a pair of Great Horned Owls, one sitting directly above the other in a medium-sized spruce tree. Mike has been keeping track of several pairs of owls at Pheasant Branch, and he knew exactly where to look. That was new for my Conservation Big Year count. He also showed me a huge tree cavity nearby that they’ve nested in some years.

Next, Mike brought me to a trail that has bird feeders alongside it. Here’s where I started feeling my age—I’ve been losing some of my high-frequency hearing, and never heard several Brown Creepers that Mike heard easily. He also pointed out a flicker, American Tree Sparrows, and several other little dickey birds that I had to strain to pick up. Scolding chickadees and a rush of wings put us both on a Cooper’s Hawk carrying prey.

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk holding prey and staring at us

We checked out a prairie area where a Horned Lark flew across the road—another new species. Then Mike had to get to work, but we’d amassed a list of 24 species, fully half new for my year list. The only species I got entirely skunked on that Mike heard was the Brown Creeper, but fortunately I’d seen two of them last week.

 A major cold front had kept temperatures down around 10 that morning, but I still visited Picnic Point, on the University of Wisconsin Campus. This is a place I used to know as well as Mike knows Pheasant Branch. Just a couple of days before, a great assortment of waterfowl had been reported, but now Lake Mendota’s shoreline was frozen, and  almost all the ducks I saw were too far out for me to identify while I was shivering so hard, though I did manage to see enough to identify the closest ducks—a group of Red-breasted Mergansers, another new species. And visiting Picnic Point is never a waste of time. A gorgeous Red-tailed Hawk circled in the brilliant blue sky, an adult Bald Eagle perched in a large tree on the shoreline, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker gave me nice looks.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker at Picnic Point

I would have been much sadder to leave if the weather had been a bit balmier. In Illinois, I saw a kestrel on a wire, bringing the number of new birds for the year to 14, and my total year list to 63. Not bad for the first two weeks of the year. The list will climb dramatically when I reach Florida this weekend. 

New birds for the year:
  1. Red-breasted Merganser
  2. Cooper's Hawk
  3. Red-tailed Hawk
  4. American Kestrel
  5. Great Horned Owl
  6. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  7. Northern Flicker
  8. Horned Lark
  9. Tufted Titmouse
  10. American Robin
  11. American Tree Sparrow
  12. White-throated Sparrow
  13. Dark-eyed Junco
  14. Pine Siskin
Miles driven today (from Middleton to Aurora, Illinois) 154 + 13 miles in Mike's car = 167 miles