Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Marl Bed Flats in May

Marl Bed Flats
Stilt Sandpiper with Greater Yellowlegs
There's a wonderful little birding treasure in Seminole County called Marl Bed Flats.  It's just north of Lake Jesup, and it's the best place I know of for shorebirds in my home county. Calling it a park would be a bit of a stretch. You'll find no restrooms, no amenities, just a gate and some poorly marked trails.  But after walking through an Oak Hammock area, you end up on the flats--a wide expanse of wet, grassy wonder with a slough that sometimes fills up with shorebirds and wading birds.  This May at least 12 species of shorebirds have made their way through the area, much to my delight: Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher (a bit of a rarity inland here), and Long-billed Dowitcher.

Marl Bed Flats
Black-necked Stilt
Marl Bed Flats
Greater Yellowlegs
Marl Bed Flats
Semipalmated Plover
Marl Bed Flats
Stilt Sandpiper
Marl Bed Flats
Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers
Marl Bed Flats
Solitary Sandpiper
Marl Bed Flats
Short-billed Dowitcher
We find an assortment of wading birds here all year round, but Roseate Spoonbills seem to like to come in here around the beginning of May.

Marl Bed Flats
Roseate Spoonbill
Red-winged Blackbirds and Eastern Meadowlarks are also here year-round, and they breed here, but Bobolinks also pass through. They usually arrive in late April and continue well into May.

Marl Bed Flats
Marl Bed Flats
Marl Bed Flats
Red-winged Blackbird
Marl Bed Flats
Eastern Meadowlark
One of the nicer surprises of this May, though, has been the persistence of at least one Savannah Sparrow into late May.  In fact, I saw one this morning.  They should be long gone by now to their breeding grounds up north, but this one just doesn't want to leave sunny Florida.  This photo below was taken on May 22nd.

Marl Bed Flats
Savannah Sparrow

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Return to Rocky Point

The Mexican Eagle-or Crested Caracara
Recently, I wrote about my first experience in Rocky Point, Mexico back in 2011. I was just beginning as a birder. Fast forward into the future by three years and I find a whole new world of birds.  The difference?  My knowledge of birds has tripled.  Like any us who bird, we hopefully grow from the experiences that we gain while being out in the field. And I REALLY love birds. 

At the popular port of downtown Rocky Point
And so I began my research for all the birds I missed on the first trip because I thought they were "uninteresting".  I was a photographer first. The birds came later.  It still shocks me that I even thought this way!  Rest assured, it's not how I see the world now.  Every bird, even the little brown ones, matter.  Like any of my trips, I do plenty of research on the birds found around the various areas before arriving at my destination.  Two areas of interest for me were the rocky shores around the port of Rocky Point and along an estuary known as Morúa.  There I would search for such specialties like the Large-billed Savannah Sparrows and Yellow-footed Gulls. 

Heermann's Gulls go crazy over what's in the boat
For me, it's always interesting to see which gull dominates the shorelines and skies of a place. I found the Heermann's Gulls were most abundant.  The Ring-billed and Yellow-footed Gulls were also very common and found in large groups. Overall, I had a great time working on my gull identification.  Also of interest were several California Gulls and ONE Franklin's Gull.  During the summer, Laughing Gulls can make their way into the Sea of Cortez.   

Juvenile Pacific Loon
Other shorebirds of interest included Whimbrels, Dunlins, Western Sandpipers, Surfbirds, Pacific and Common Loons, Wilson's, Snowy, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Long-billed Curlews, Sanderlings, American Oystercatchers, Reddish and Snowy Egrets and more. 

When I began keeping logs, I started comparing my notes.  I couldn't believe just how many birds I missed on my first outing. What in the world was I doing?! And I'll probably do and say the same thing two years from now when I go back to visit.  Birding is a skill that just gets better with experience.  It was beneficial to compare old reports with the new ones which help aide me with the evaluation of my current birding skills. 

Snowy Plovers
On this trip, I was shocked to find Common Loons only a few feet from shore. Living in the desert, it's not a bird I often get to see. They were slow moving as they stalked large schools of fish.  I'd observe them putting their heads down into the water and then......they'd go under. 

Common Loon
The Morúa estuary was a new spot for me.  I like to add on new birding spots when I revisit old haunts. This place was incredible!  It was also home to Burrowing Owls!

Black Storm-Petrel
It's interesting to note that many people forget Arizona shares borders with the state of Sonora, Mexico.  Many US birders will hug the international border and work for the Five-striped Sparrow, Green Kingfisher, etc. It's amazing how easy these birds are to find 40 minutes south of the US/Mexico border. Granted, I have to plan these trips ahead of time because I need my passport as well as all my travel gear.  It's not like waking up in the morning and deciding to go bird a day in Phoenix within a moment's notice:)  
Yellow-footed Gull
Birds, life birds especially, take me out of my comfort zone and force me to tackle the ever changing challenges.  How do I get there?  Do I rent a taxi?  A car?  Where is the place?  Is it safe? Could I walk there?  Will I have enough water?   These are just some of the questions that run through my head on any of these local or international trips. 

Some birds even have stories like "Roberta" below.  While we were eating near the port, this Heermann's Gull came to visit us.  We noticed she had a bad foot.  The owner came out with his son and tossed her some scraps telling me the story about how they rescued her as a chick.  Apparently she was born with that bad foot.  It made me smile knowing that there are some people who do care about our feathered friends.  

Heermann's Gull
This year after being attacked by no-see-ums in Florida for a Wilson's Plover, I was attacked by a Wilson's Plover!  The bird was protecting a nest nearby.  I have found these plovers to be very curious around me.  Each time I've gone out birding, I've heard their unique "wheep wheep".  The next thing I know is that I have a Wilson's Plover staring at me:)  Not that I'm complaining. 

Wilson's Plover
I finally discovered a Dunlin in full breeding plumage and it was DIVINE!  There were many Dunlins in Rocky Point and it was nice to have closer observations of these sometimes rare birds to Arizona. 

Every tern could be found with a little patience. The most numerous tern was the Forster's Tern. 

Forster's Tern
Rocky Point is dusty and dry, but the minute we drove along the beach, we could see that there was so much life.  Never in my life would I have expected to see a Sora in the open at a local hotel!  It was swimming in one of their ponds and must have decided to stop and rest during migration. 

Of course, any trip to Rocky Point would be incomplete without a sighting of the Brown and Blue-footed Boobies. They can be seen around the piers of Rocky Point.  Their nesting grounds are about 20 miles off shore on the Bird Islands. Rocky Point or Puerto Peñasco is a great place to bird.  It's around a 4 hour drive from Tucson or Phoenix.  This will conclude my series of Mexico for now but I am working on several trips into new areas during the summer of 2014 and planning on another trip to Southern Mexico during the summer of 2015. 

Blue-footed Booby
Over the next few months, we'll be traveling to Guatemala. Stay tuned for more because Birding Is Fun!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Piping Plovers at Maine's Reid State Park

Piping Plover, a species that is Near Threatened.
On April 11, 2014 I took my first trip to Reid State Park in Sagadahoc County, Maine. I had no idea what I would encounter there but was thrilled to find myself on the open Atlantic with rocky shores and rolling surf. I spent about three hours here exploring the beach and shore and surrounding marshes and woodlands. I was pleased and surprised to discover Piping Plovers on the beach. I took these photos over the course of those three hours with some photos taken as I initially walked down Mile Long Beach and some on my return trip as the clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped as the sunset. It was a glorious day to be at the ocean and I eventually could not resist removing my shoes and running on the wet sand. You can read the whole adventure on Kathie's Birds: An Afternoon at Reid State Park. I had so many good pictures of this amazing little bird that I wanted to share more of them here. 

In the course of my research I discovered that the Piping Plover is a species that is listed as Near Threatened and efforts are underway to help preserve this species and it's habitat before we lose them all together. Piping Plovers are our next to smallest plover with only the 6 1/2" Snowy Plover being smaller. In contrast, the more common and familiar plover, the Killdeer, is 10 1/2". Piping Plovers like to nest in the sand on the beach and many beaches have taken up roping off these areas so people cannot trample their nests, which are a simple depression in the sand. When I returned to Reid State Park a few weeks later I was therefore not surprised to see they had a portion of the beach roped off and signs posted to warn others to keep away from this fragile nesting habitat.

Mile Long Beach at Reid State Park 4-11-14

Maine's rocky shore 4-11-14

Rolling waves at Reid State Park

Sanderlings at the surf line.

But who is this in the foreground?

Little cutie!

Piping Plover is 7 1/4"; Sanderlings in background are 7 1/2"

Two Piping Plovers on the beach.

Piping Plover right profile view.

Piping Plover feeding

Beak in the sand searching for food.

Paler female Piping Plover

Everybody RUN!

Piping Plover with sanderlings-size comparison.

Getting late.

Gray and cold.

Not too cold to eat!

Silver Sunset at Reid State Park 4-11-14

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

An Epic Month of Rarities and Lifers

If you are hoping to see some great bird photos in this post, you will be greatly disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to see and read about phenomenal birding that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat then keep reading.  I have had a month of birding like none I have ever had and will likely not experience again. It has been one non-stop adrenaline rush as I have been turning up rarity after rarity and chasing the rarities of others.  A bird's rarity is always relative to where one lives, so I will do my best to explain the significance of each bird in this post as it relates to birding in my state of Minnesota.  I will also list them in the chronological order I saw them.  All birds listed below were lifers for me.

Spotted Towhee
On April 2nd, I went out to a state wildlife management area looking for migrating Long-eared Owls.  Since no one had ever eBirded this WMA before, I pulled up the binoculars on everything with wings to begin to tell the bird story of this place.  To my astonishment I found a Spotted Towhee within five minutes of being there.  If you look at a range map for this species, you will see Minnesota is not even included.  The nearest range is the western Dakotas.  We do, however, get one every now and then.  The last time one had been seen in my county was over a decade ago, but no one ever submitted the necessary documentation to the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union.  Therefore my find was an official county first record.  The photo below was taken during a blizzard from about 50 feet away.

Spotted Towhee - official Kandiyohi County first record

Mute Swan
On April 13th, I was driving home from my CPA's house after going over my tax returns.  I stopped at a slough to take a closer look at an egret all hunched up in the cold weather.  I was hoping it was a Cattle or Snowy Egret.  Turns out it was just a Great Egret.  I had ignored a bigger, white bird on this pond thinking it was just a Tundra or Trumpeter Swan.  Not until my wife asked me what it was did I pull up the binoculars to look up and see it was a Mute Swan!  This is a controversial find since Mutes are known to be destructive and invasive.  Minnesota maybe gets a couple each year, but even still the Department of Natural Resources often eliminates them.  Regardless, my find was a Renville County first record.

Mute Swan - a Renville County first record

Bonaparte's Gull
Not a rare bird for Minnesota by any means, but on April 18th I finally managed to see a migrating Bonaparte's Gull life bird.  And then I saw them everywhere.
Bonaparte's Gull

American Avocet
On April 23rd when I was at work I was honestly thinking it felt like a good day to find an American Avocet.  I had a strong hunch about it.  This might have been because I remember a few showing up in our state around this time last year.  I had never seen one before and really wanted to see one.  Minnesota is east of their breeding range, but we do get a few every spring.  So based on that and my hunch I went to the local sewage ponds after work.  To my astonishment, my hunch paid off! There was a lone American Avocet there, only the second one in our state this spring according to eBird.

American Avocet

Eurasian Wigeon
On April 25th I was at work when news came in of a Eurasian Wigeon just 45 minutes away.  I don't think I need to explain the rarity of this bird.  This was the 4th sighting of this species this spring which is highly unusual considering we can go years without getting one.  Some of this sightings may be the same bird, but we for sure had two different ones.  Anyhow, I took off work early to go chase this good bird.  It was several hundred yards from where I stood.

Cousins from different continents - Eurasian Wigeon and American Wigeon

Lesser Black-backed Gull
The very next day on April 26th I was back at those sewage ponds where I discovered the American Avocet.  I was watching the gulls and one stood out like a sore thumb with is black back and wings.  I knew it was either a Lesser Black-backed Gull or the Great Black-backed Gull, so I snapped some photos from over a hundred yards away to help me ID it.  It turns out it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a rare visitor from Europe and a Kandiyohi County first record.  Not even the long-time birders in our county who have tallied 290 species have seen it here even though they have seen birds like Vermilion Flycatchers, Ruffs, and Harlequin Ducks in the county.  We do get the Lesser Black-backed Gull every now and then in our state since we are near the Great Lakes, but they mostly show up on Lake Superior near Duluth.  Seeing one so far inland was quite a treat.
Lesser Black-backed Gull - a Kandiyohi County first record
Left to Right: 2 Ring-billed Gulls, 2 Bonaparte's Gulls, 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull

Need I say any more about how rare and cool this bird is?  On April 27th, I joined the throngs of Minnesota and Wisconsin birders in chasing Wisconsin's first state record Garganey at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area just 80 miles north and east of Minneapolis/St. Paul and just a few miles across the Minnesota border.  It was raining cats and dogs the day I went, but I got killer looks from just 15 feet away of this amazing duck.

Garganey at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin

Ross's Goose
On May 1st, I went chasing after 16 reported Cattle Egrets - another scarce bird for Minnesota.  I struck out on the egrets but did get my lifer Ross's Goose mixed in with a late flock of Greater White-fronted Geese.  Again, a Ross's Goose is an expected lifer for our area, but they are usually scarce in numbers compared to the thousands of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese that migrate through our area.

Ross's Goose with Greater White-fronted Geese in the background

White-faced Ibis
On May 3rd I was on the chase again.  This time I was after a report of 5 White-faced Ibises.  Since a small number nest in South Dakota, we occasionally get some that show up every spring during migration.  I was fortunate to get to see them.

White-faced Ibises

The Ibises actively foraged in and out of the cattails and marsh grasses on the edge of the road.

Baird's Sandpiper
Again, this is not a rare bird for our area during migration.  But it was a life bird I got on May 3rd on the Ibis trip, and it was lifer #10 for a month's worth of unimaginable birding.

I don't think I will ever have another month with the intensity and numbers of life birds as I had this past month.  Only the Ross's Goose, Bonaparte's Gull, and Baird's Sandpiper could have been reasnonable expectations even though they are all uncommon themselves.  I never imagined I would see all the birds that I did and discover a few of them myself.  It was an unforgettable month, and I'm still trying to calm down from all that I experienced.

For more detailed stories on any of the above birds, head on over to A Boy Who Cried Heron.