Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Thrill of Adventure

A slippery climb to view a Swallow-tailed Kite and the epic beauty of Semuc Champey

I love birding.  Period. But I love birding Central and South America a little bit more. My first great passion was Spanish.  It brought me to this chapter in my life.  Once upon a time, a small town boy from Wisconsin dreamed of exploring the rain forests and ancient civilizations of Central and South America. He had read about them in his National Geographic magazines.

Clay-colored Thrush enjoys an avocado
 Today that dream has turned into reality. Back in 2006, I went to Guatemala for the first time but I wasn't a birder.  So I returned last year with my new eyes and camera ready for the journey.  Birding in an exotic locale is an adventure.  There aren't reliable ebird reports in many places.  Many times I had to speak with people about a particular bird.  They didn't always know what the names of the birds were but if I had a pic on my cell phone, they'd generally recognize them right away. At that point, they'd give me directions to the various spots and also the time frame in which the birds usually showed up. I found that I was the first person reporting in many of these incredible places. And it was a very rewarding experience. 

This is where my heart belongs and perhaps one day I will return here for a longer stretch, but there is a great big world waiting to be explored.  I chose Guatemala over Costa Rica or Panama this time because it was underbirded. Plus, if you forced me to choose, I'd pick Guatemala because it is such a colorful country. The Mayan culture is still rich and alive.  However, it wasn't always the easiest place to travel and the birds could be a challenge.  

Watching a volcano erupt in the distance
 But at the end of the day after lots of research and exploration, we had the most incredible views from our lodges. 

Slaty-tailed Trogon
 There are no safety rails in Guatemala like one might find in Costa Rica or in parts of Panama.  People would ask me the purpose of my trip and I'd tell them that I was birding.  They wrinkled their noses.....meaning they didn't understand.  So I began to tell them that I was a photographer filming the amazing Guatemalan wildlife.  And then they understood. Birding is still an unknown for many around the world. We are the ambassadors for our feathered friends in this crazy human world. If people understand that there are those who would pay money to get a glimpse of their birds, they then might consider protecting areas for people to come visit. The idea is slowly catching on. 

And the animals were incredible.  With birder eyes, nothing goes unnoticed.  Plus I had a friend with me who also helped in the searches and she was amazing.  Together we laughed at the most uncomfortable situations.  I think by the end of the month, she understood my addiction towards birds better. 

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush(that's a mouthful)
 And while on the trails in Guatemala, I noticed during my research of strange birds that there were two birders who also reported on Ebird.  In fact, they were some of the only ones who reported often.   Both had male names and I assumed that they were older until one contacted me via Facebook.  Turns out, the top ebirders for Guatemala were two high school students.  I loved that my stereotype was shattered.  As a teacher, it is my hope that we get more young people to bird.  And I have seen an increase in their numbers!  In fact just the other day, I met a high school student with a group of birders in the Arizona area.  I had assumed the older gentleman was his grandfather.  Turns out he was a birder! Isn't our lot a strange one?  Where else can generations join together for one common goal and discover birds? Each offering the other knowledge, experience and quick spotting by sight or sound.  I think it's pretty amazing.  

Gray Silky-flycatcher
 Now birding still isn't "cool" by the regular gang, but it's catching on.  Why?  Epic locales like the ones we visit entice the young at heart to explore places that they've never heard about before.  And when I asked these young people why they've chosen birding as their hobby, they've explained to me that not only are birds amazing but that it takes them to strange and exciting places. When I heard "strange", I immediately thought about the smelly sewage plants and dumps:) Then there are the epic National Parks. We can camp, hike, canoe, etc.  Birding is also a personal challenge and for some, a competition. How many trips around the world did it take me before I put 2 and 2 together? I'd prefer not to think about it:) I'm here now and that's all that matters. 

My next series for Birding is Fun will focus on several Guatemalan places that I thought were great for birding.  I'll share some secrets with you as well plus give you some info for your non-birder crew who might want to follow. We'll explore Antigua, Tikal, Semuc Champey, Lake Atitlan, and other locales.  Each place offers birders great spaces to explore while having other things of interest for the non-birder crowd.  It's like a two-for-one:) While on this trip, I snapped this picture(below) of an artist painting her mural near Antigua.  It inspired me as I sat and watched her work.  It got me thinking about my own photography and life list. This became the header for a personal blog to help organize the sightings of new and old birds alike. 

 Each year I learn more and more about birds and it's thrilling. That's why Birding is Fun!

Where will this trail lead me?  What will I discover?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Bounty of Beautiful Birds

My Birding Is Fun! June post, Magnificent Warblers!, featured many of the gorgeous, colorful warblers seen throughout the bird migration season here in the Midwest. This post will highlight several other species spotted during this time period. All these stunning birds were photographed either in the city of Chicago, on our La Porte, Indiana property, or in Berrien County, Michigan.

Always a welcome sight on our property in La Porte ~  Baltimore Oriole

A lively Blue-gray Gnatcatcher seeks insects in the brush

A Curve-billed Thrasher ruffles its feathers after a torrential downpour

So far, this is my best rare bird sighting of 2014. Curve-billed Thrashers are most often seen in the southwestern United States and in a large portion of Mexico. This golden-eyed visitor was observed over two weeks in June at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago.

A radiant beauty! ~ Scarlet Tanager

A tail-bobbing Solitary Sandpiper seeks nutrition

A striking Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage finery

A handsome Pileated Woodpecker searches for insects amid fallen tree debris

Posing pretty surrounded by pink blossoms ~ Cedar Waxwing

A Brown Thrasher forages near the woods edge

A lovely Veery searches for insects in the forest underbrush

A brilliant Indigo Bunting visits our koi pond in Chicago

Foraging for insects ~ Rose-breasted Grosbeak

A curious look ~ Golden-crowned Kinglet

Posted by Julie Gidwitz ~ Nature's Splendor - http://naturessplendor-julie.blogspot.com/

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Birding Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota's badlands couldn't be in a better spot. (Well, they'd be better off without all that oil shale under them, but that's another story.) The badlands fall pretty much on a line the separates the western from eastern avifauna of North America. More specifically, it's the border between the upper Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain ecoregions. Any time you're birding around a "borderland" like that, it's bound to be interesting.
Yes, it actually looks like this. Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt NP.

The only truly protected areas of the badlands of any considerable size are the two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The South Unit is right off of I-94 with the town of Medora serving as gateway. The North Unit is a bit more remote, but no less scenic. The park has plenty of rocky scrubland, grassland, and riparian habitat with the Little Missouri River winding its way through the wilderness. Spotted Towhees provide the background soundtrack for the park while Lark Sparrows are the real "trashbird." When something as cool as a Lark Sparrow is your trashbird, you know you're in a good spot!

                 Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus. They are EVERYWHERE in Teddy Roosevelt.

Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) in the North Unit.
Birds aren't the only animals worth looking at in the park. Bison and pronghorn are easy to spot. Easy, that is, unless you're looking up and trying to locate a singing Yellow-breasted Chat while walking around the edge of a small copse of trees. In that case you may startle a reclining bull bison. This will be extremely shocking to both you and the Bison. Ideally the bison will snort, retreat, and merely glare at you rather than charge at you. This will allow you to live long enough to recount the story in a post about Theodore Roosevelt NP at the Birding is Fun blog.
This is him glaring at me after he gave me some room. I deeply appreciate his decision to not punish my stupidity. 
There are several active Prairie Dog towns in the park, providing endless entertainment. If you're watching a town and suddenly every single Prairie Dog gives an alarm cry and disappears into the ground...look up. There's likely a Golden Eagle about to swoop over your head. 
Pretty cute for not being a bird.
Sarah scoping the bluffs above the Cottonwood Campground for eagles. Golden Eagles nest on those highest cliffs. 

Did I mention the wild horses?
To get a better view in the grassland, simply hop atop some bison dung. 

Not a great photo, but this is the Yellow-breasted Chat that almost got me killed, so he deserves a spot here.
The Little Missouri River provides an excellent riparian oasis.

Birding is fun anywhere you do it. I mean, we all love sewage ponds, don't we? But when you find good birds in a breathtaking natural area it's extra special. Here's a video I shot of a Lazuli Bunting. I think this captures the feel of the place. Watch it till the end, it's short. 

Sunset at Painted Canyon. I can hear the Spotted Towhees serenading the last light of day. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

It's a Green, Green World Out There

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Maine 2014

When spring turns into summer

Baltimore Oriole, Maine 2014

And the world is framed with green

Yellow Warbler, Maine 2014

The birds begin their summer songs,

Song Sparrow, Maine, 2014

Sung sweetly in their canopies,

Common Yellowthroat, Maine 2014

This verdant stage whence they begin to start life anew,

Oriole Nest, Connecticut 2013

nest building, song singing, 

Eastern Phoebe, Maine 2014

Wild Turkeys, Maine 2014
 mate taking, egg laying Life!

Baby Catbird, Maine 2014
On this green stage 

Indigo Bunting, Maine 2014

in the Northeast Jungle,

Mare Brook Estuary, Brunswick, Maine 2014

This rain forest of maple and oaks, birch and ferns,

Blueberries and bogs,

Black-throated Green Warbler on Brunswick Landing, Maine 2014

Berry giving, fruit laden, insect feeding,

Savannah Sparrow at Cohen Meadows Nature Park, Colchester, CT 2014


~Kathie Adams Brown (July 6, 2014)


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Baby Owls!

Here's a photo of baby Great Horned Owls I took in Florida. They had moved out onto the branch from their nest. During the sixth to eighth week after they hatch, young Great Horned Owls leave the nest and may perch on nearby branches before taking their first flights. It can sometimes happen that the young leave the nest earlier because of a flimsy nest or other disturbance and in that case they may perch on the ground at the base of the tree and the parents bring them food. After the young fledge and can fly, they stay perched in the territory and wait for food to be brought to them. At nine to ten weeks of age they begin sustained flights and may follow after the parents and call loudly. They gradually develop their flying ability and learn how to hunt. At five months they are ready to live on their own and parents and young disperse off the territory. So cute at this age, then they grow up to be one of the fiercest avian predators in the woods.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Butcher Bird in early field guides

Shades of gray can be beautiful, but also confusing to a young birder.

Loggerhead Shrike close 20110605

Back in New Jersey on August 21, 1949 I saw my first Loggerhead Shrike. It was my Life Bird #119. Actually, a few days earlier I had found grasshoppers impaled on the spikes of a barbed wire fence in the Passaic River bottomlands a short walk from my home in Rutherford. 

I had read about how the "Butcher Bird," whose "weak feet" lacked the talons of raptors, must stabilize its victims in this manner to permit them to be torn apart with its hooked beak. Hoping one day to see mice and small birds in a shrike's larder, I did not expect lowly insects. I searched for the shrike to no avail until three days later, when I caught sight of my "lifer."   

I did not know exactly what to call the bird, as nomenclature was confusing. My tattered little pocket Chester A Reed guide (published in 1923) called it a "Loggerhead Shrike." In those days birds were considered to be either "good" or "bad," but in Reed's opinion the shrike seems to straddle the line.


More up-to-date, my 1937 Peterson Field Guide to the Birds only illustrated the larger (and even less common) Northern Shrike:

Peterson 1937 Shrike illustration

The text was not very illuminating, as it gave short shrift to the Loggerhead or Migrant Shrike as it was called:

Peterson 1937 Shrike description

My "go to" reference for information about distribution and abundance was Allan Cruickshank's "Birds Around New York City (1942). I was elated that I had seen a relatively rare bird. Cruickshank reverted to calling it a "Migrant Shrike."


Only later, during the year of my first sighting, did Peterson's 1947 Guide appear, with the Loggerhead Shrike in all its glory.

Peterson 1947 Shrike illustration

During the 20 years following my sighting, the Loggerhead Shrike became more common in New Jersey, especially in the southern reaches of the state. However their numbers decreased and they once again became quite rare towards the end of the 20th Century up to the present. Ingestion of pesticides in insect prey is strongly suspected as the cause of their drastic decline. In south Florida, now my home, they are quite common breeders and winter visitors. 

Cold light brings out the blue:

Loggerhead Shrike 20090207

Their prey is varied, but mostly insects. I think this huge grub is a horsefly larva.

Shrike with big grub (prey ID please) 20100719

Except during the breeding seasons, Loggerhead Shrikes tend to be solitary. They often select the highest perch...

Loggerhead Shrike 20081126

...and may be challenged by grackles...

Shrike-Grackle interaction 20110605


Shrike and mockingbird 20130723

...and Blue Jays. In this case, the shrike retreated, possibly to simply avoid the company of others.

Shrike and jay 2-20121018

Yet, many time I have seen a shrike sit peacefully with a variety of other species, such as this American Kestrel...

Kestrel and shrike 2-20121213

...or a Northern Flicker.

Distant shrike and flicker 20110410

One of my more remarkable shrike images includes two shrikes with a Belted Kingfisher and a kestrel, in late November.

Odd gathering 20111127

In June the shrikes are courting.

Loggerhead Shrike courtship 3-20130607

I usually find it difficult to get any closer than 30-40 feet from a Loggerhead Shrike, but this fledgling was an exception.

Fledgling Loggerhead Shrike close 20100729

The shrikes like to hunt for lizards on our back patio, so I can get some close views through the glass doors.

Loggerhead Shrike 2-20101231
Loggerhead Shrike 20101231

Parents watched this youngster as it unsuccessfully pursued a Brown Anole. They did not intervene, perhaps to teach their fledgling the importance of stealth and persistence.

Loggerhead Shrike juvenile thru window 20140601