Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: Swift Justice by Jan Dunlap

Minnesota birder Bob White discovers another dead body. He gets entangled in the mysterious murder and helps police crack the case. But this time, the dead body is found in Birdchick's (Sharon Stiteler) car at a birding event. Did Birdchick commit the murder?! You'll have to read it to find out!

I've enjoyed all the Bob White murder mystery books Jan Dunlap has written. Swift Justice is particularly engaging because some of the characters are based on real life people, real life conservation issues, and references to real life situations of birding interest, like the Wood Rail found in Texas recently, and even a Birds and Beers. How cool is that?!

A couple years ago, I mentioned to Jan in an email that it would be really fun to find a way to incorporate a bird blogger into one of her books. She came through for me in Swift Justice with rival bird bloggers going head-to-head.

Dunlap's writing style is delightful and her characters are endearing. I relate to her main character a lot, and I kind of have a crush on his wife, Luce. Dunlap leads the reader down many a rabbit hole and distracts you from the real murderer with red herrings and side plots that all tie together in the end. So many books end disappointingly with loose ends, but Jan Dunlap always ties up her ends nicely and the reader is satisfied with the conclusion...and justice has been served.

Swift Justice and the five other books in the Bob White murder mystery series are great reads for birders and for people who just like a good murder mystery. You can purchase the Kindle version for as little as $7.69. So worth it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Central Winds Park
Painted Bunting
One of my favorite migrants, though we get to see these all winter long as well.
Lately I've been considering why it is I find birding so continuously fascinating, and even addicting. Of course there's the beauty of the birds, the thrill of finding them (especially rarities), and the challenge of learning to identify them.  I also have great interest in learning about their behavior--why they act the way they do.  It's a fascinating endeavor.  But recently I've become more aware of another reason why I'm fascinated by birding--the rhythms of nature.

Yankee Lake Facility
Florida Scrub-Jay
One of our resident birds; thankfully, we get to see these all year-round
I'm growing in my appreciation and understanding of this aspect of birding--I certainly have not arrived.  But year after year, I'm starting to at least appreciate the rhythms of nature in Florida and how it affects my birding.

Central Winds Park
One of my favorite migrants; we seem to see more of them in my area in the Fall than in the Spring.
Peninsular Florida has a rainy and a dry season.  We talk about the four seasons, and I suppose you could say we experience them to some degree, but  October to May is our dry season and June to September is rainy.  So our summers as hot and wet and our winters are relatively cool and dry. As you might imagine, our dry season is my favorite time for birding.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Louisiana Waterthrush
One of our early migrants in both Spring and Fall
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Bay-breasted Warbler
It seems like the third week of October is the prime time to find this  bird.
Interestingly, I'm learning that at least some birds are migrating to or through Florida throughout most of the year.  Warblers begin to arrive here in February and continue through May, with a few staying to breed.  Then as early as July, Fall migration begins. Shorebirds start coming through in July, and warblers begin to trickle through.  By September, migration is in full swing. Here on the eastern side of the state, there's almost a predictable order for when you can expect to see certain species.  Some come over a wide range of dates, like American Redstarts, and others seem to come through very quickly, like Bay-breasted Warblers; if you blink, you might miss them. Flycatchers, tanagers, thrushes and other songbirds also come through during this time.

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Nelson's Sparrow
In the right habitat, it seems like the first half hour after sunrise is the best time to find these guys
Canal St.
Grasshopper Sparrow
On cool, crisp, sunny and windless mornings, you might just find one of these perched out in the open
As October draws to a close, we see far fewer warblers, but then we have the fun of seeing more and more sparrows coming through. And then in November and December we can look forward to ducks and finally gulls coming through to spend the winter here. This is also the time that we can look forward to vagrants coming here to spend the winter with us.

Merritt Island NWR
Northern Pintail
Many winter here
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Black-legged Kittiwake
From mid-May through July, I can devote a great deal of my birding time to searching for breeding birds.  June is probably the quietest month of the year, and one of the hottest, but it's still fun to see what may have decided to breed in the area.

Econ River WA
Brown-headed Nuthatch
These wonderful birds breed in pine forests near my home
Lower Wekiva River Preserve
Carolina Chickadee

The winter months though are also a great deal of fun.  It's dry, and you can walk around without sweating.  And it seems like there are always vagrants to be found. Sometimes the same bird comes back to the same general area every year.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
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Vermilion Flycatcher
This one has come back to the same park (and almost the same tree) and spent the winter here four years running.
The rhythms of nature now fill and inform my birding calendar.  They tell me the places to visit and the species I should look for.  These rhythms also give me a greater a greater appreciation for the place I live. It's a beautiful world we live in, and birding helps me see that more and more.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


This past August, my husband and I traveled to Utah for business (him) and pleasure (me - birding!). Of the 33 life birds I tallied in the state, two of them were grebes. Along the auto tour loop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, I was delighted to observe both Western and Clark's Grebes. Both of these birds were much larger than the Horned, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes I have seen in Chicago over the years. Below I feature several of the grebes I have had the pleasure of viewing since I started birding.

Floating lazily in Montrose Harbor ~ Horned Grebe

In full breeding plumage, a Horned Grebe shows off its magnificent "horns"

A Horned Grebe dons its more subtle winter plumage

One of twenty Western Grebes seen along the auto tour loop at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Two juvenile Western Grebes enjoy the sunny day at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

In breeding plumage, an Eared Grebe displays its golden ear tufts

An Eared Grebe in non-breeding plumage swims in the harbor

A successful dive ~ Eared Grebe

Spending a spring day at North Pond in Chicago ~ Pied-billed Grebe

A good view of it's two-toned bill ~ Pied-billed Grebe

A Clark's Grebe forages in cool waters

A group of Clark's Grebes delight in the pleasant day

A sweet sight ~ Juvenile Clark's Grebe 

Posted by Julie Gidwitz 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Halloween Birds

Halloween Feeder Birds

I decided to have a little fun this month and post photos of familiar birds with spooky sounding names. I am already in the Halloween "spirit," and thought this might help you to feel that way as well. I have numbered each photo and will post the correct species name in a list at the end. See how many you can get right as you scroll through the post and read the ghostly names I have given them! Have fun!

1. Black and orange Halloween Bird

2. Casper the Friendly Ghost Bird (seen at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson.)

3. Magnificent Horned Dragonbird

4. Pink-legged Spiderbird

5. Wart-faced Witch Duck (this bird has no need for a Halloween mask: it was born with one!)

6. Red-faced Corpse Bird

7. Blood-brained Swamp Diver

8. Black-crowned Night Hunter

9. Hairy-horned Dinosaur Bird

10. Green-necked Nightmare Stalker

11. Phantom of Mere Point (this birds appears out of the mist and fog, then vanishes again)

12. Haunting What What Bird (this bird drives you crazy by always asking, "What? What?)

13. White-faced Night Screamer (one scream from this bird will send chills down your spine!)

14. Molten Fire Shovelers

Happy Halloween!

15. Marsh Banshee Bird
  1. Black-headed Grosbeak-Tucson, AZ
  2. Leuchistic Vermilion Flycatcher-Tucson, AZ
  3. Double-crested Cormorant-Tucson
  4. Black-necked Stilt-Gilbert Water Ranch, Phoenix
  5. Turkey Vulture-Tucson, AZ
  6. Muscovey Duck-Tucson, AZ
  7. American Coot-Phoenix
  8. Black-crowned Night Heron-Tucson
  9. Wild Turkey, Madera Canyon-Green Valley, AZ
  10. Green Heron-Phoenix, AZ
  11. Great Blue Heron-Brunswick, Maine
  12. Phainopepla, Tucson, AZ
  13. Barn Owl, The Salton Sea-California
  14. Northern Shovelers-Tucson
  15. Snowy Egret, Scarborough Marsh-Maine
Come Visit me at Kathie's Birds!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mr. Berylline Goes to Michigan

What do Madera Canyon in Arizona and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have in common?
If you said they’re two of the best places in the United States to see a Berylline hummingbird, you’d be right, at least for this past September.
The rarest of the hummingbirds that regularly occurs in the U.S., Berylline Hummingbirds (Amazilia beryllina) are truly a tropical bird of Mexico and Central America. Their native range extends from northwestern Mexico through Honduras where they nest in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental and some of the highlands farther south. Sightings of northern vagrants have been made north of Big Bend in Texas and the southwest corner of New Mexico. Recently, they’ve been known to breed in the southernmost sky islands of Arizona, a possible northward expansion of their range. Until last Wednesday, no Berryline Hummingbird had ever been seen north of the Chiricahua Mountains.
The story unfolds like a suspense novel.
On Wednesday evening, as birders across Michigan were settling in for a late summer’s nap, word came across the birding listservs of a possible Berylline hummingbird in Grand Marais, Michigan, on the edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. “Possible” was the key word in the report, and it’s used often when an ID is in question or a report is received second hand. The possibility of a Berylline anywhere in the Great Lakes, much less on the shore of Lake Superior, was beyond belief to many of us. A few conversations sprang up about what it possibly could be. A misidentified Ruby-throated, the common hummer around here? A Buff-bellied, which would be significantly more likely than a Berylline but still an astounding record for Michigan?
In the course of one of those conversations, Skye Haas, a prominent Upper Peninsula birder chimed in with something that made us all catch our breath. “I’ve seen the pictures. It looks good.”
I went to bed, six hours south of the beaches of Pictured Rocks, with visions of brilliant green hummingbirds in my head. Across town from me, Adam Byrne, who holds the record for most birds ever seen in Michigan (400) was in his car headed north.
Dawn broke and turned into a lazy lunchtime as I took care of some chores and checked the listservs and Facebook frequently. There wasn’t a peep from the Upper Peninsula. That was odd. I knew many of Michigan’s best and most-connected birders were at the site of the bird at dawn, so why no report?
In Grand Marais, the mood was somber. A dozen birders had been staked out where the bird had supposedly spent the previous day, but nothing was to be seen. Finally, in early afternoon, Skye broke the news that the bird was absent. It was what birders wistfully call a one-day-wonder. The consensus among everyone was that it would not be refound. Calls went out to birders still driving north that they might as well turn around. Caleb Putnam, Michigan’s Important Bird Area coordinator, and Rick Brigham, who is coming up on 300 birds in Michigan for the year, had just crossed into the U.P.
Hearing the sad news about the hummingbird, they decided to ease their pain by birding the eastern U.P. for the afternoon.
I expressed my condolences to the chasers and put the bird out of my mind.
At 9:30 that night, I decided to turn in early. As I was setting the alarm on my phone, a message appeared from Adam Byrne.
“Call me!”
Adam launched right into the important questions.
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Can you drive a stick?”
“The bird is back!”
Adam had driven through the night to be at the bird’s location at dawn, not found the bird, and returned back home. Thirty minutes after setting foot in the door, he got the call from the local birder in the U.P. who had first broken the news. While the birders had been looking for the hummer at a rural house near the national lakeshore, it had spent the entire day at a house in town!
The only reason any of this became known is thanks to the culture of Grand Marais and a lucky coincidence. For whatever reason, there are a lot of residents of the little town who are very interested in feeding hummingbirds. They aren’t necessarily birders, but they meticulously maintain hummingbird feeding stations and know their hummers. The resident of the home where the bird first appeared on Wednesday recognized it immediately as something unusual, even coming to the unlikely conclusion that it looked an awful like a Berylline. She snapped some excellent diagnostic photographs which led to the great chase on Thursday.
Thursday evening, after having a bunch of birders staring at her house all day, she decided to go out to a local spot to watch the sunset, since she hadn’t done that in a while and summer was fading. A mile away, another couple from Grand Marais decided on a whim to check out the sunset. They ran into each other and started chatting since everyone in town knows each other. The first lady told the tale of the strange hummingbird the previous day and the even stranger birders camped out earlier that morning. The second lady thought that was fascinating since she had been seeing and photographing what looked like a Berylline hummingbird at her feeders all day.
To catch up with the scene, we have birders that have driven from all over staking out a hummingbird that is actually leisurely lapping up nectar one mile away. Some of these birders drove right past the house where the bird actually was to pick up snacks.
Adam hadn’t slept in 36 hours and had just driven six hours back home, but he was about to head back north for Michigan bird #401. I was going to join him on the all-night drive for safety purposes. Caleb and Rick had just finished their consolation birding and were about to cross the Mackinac Bridge for home when the call came in that the bird was back. They diverted to a motel, thanking the birding gods for their decision to stay up north until the evening. The U.P. birders were comparatively well-rested and ready for another go at it at dawn.
After an uneventful drive, Adam and I cut through a corner of Pictured Rocks to check out the previous day’s stakeout, then moved on to the new location just before dawn. In short order, other vehicles arrived and a bunch of bleary-eyed birders lined up across the street from a house in Grand Marais, summoned by the clarion call of a tiny green bird. Skye was there with a crew from the U.P. Caleb and Rick were lined up. I had my scope ready. Adam, running purely on adrenaline and caffeine now, was still standing. A park ranger from Pictured Rocks and a collection of others joined us.
It wasn’t even light yet, when we spotted a dark hummingbird zip through the yard. Voices were hushed in anticipation. An odd chattering call came from a willow tree in the yard. None of the highly experienced Michigan birders assembled there recognized the sound, a very good sign that it was our tropical interloper.

The assembled twitchers at dawn.
And then a Cooper’s Hawk, notorious for feasting on small birds, flew over our heads and made several emphatic dives into the yard. Seconds after we had just admonished each other to remain quiet, everyone started yelling things like, “No!,” “Get out of here!,” and perhaps an obscenity or two.
The hawk moved on and just as the true light of dawn emerged behind the house, the curtain was pulled to reveal our prize. “Porch feeder!” We all got scopes and binoculars on the feeder, and there was a Berylline hummingbird happily sipping sugar water thousands of miles from the Sierra Madre. Hugs and high-fives were exchanged down the scope line. A tear or two may have even been shed. And then we watched the bird come and go for hours. Some of the best and most well-traveled birders of the region were standing there, and for all but two of us it was a life bird.
The best picture I could muster, phonescoped.
No one can say how the Berylline hummingbird got to Lake Superior. Some suggest Hurricane Odile pushed it out of its home and into the high prevailing winds that took it rapidly to Michigan. It’s anyone’s guess, and we’ll never know for sure. Sadly, it’s unlikely the bird will live to pass on the wanderlust in its genes. Hummingbirds can’t survive a northern Michigan winter, and the Berylline is a non-migratory bird by nature. Will it have the instinct to head south when it gets cold? In its native range it would be more likely to descend in elevation in response to poor conditions, which isn’t an option in Michigan.
Stunning phonescoped capture of the hummer by Upper Peninsula birder Joe Kaplan. 
I’d like to think he’s just a wanderer like me who wanted to see what was out there beyond the oaks and pinyon pines of his home. Maybe he’ll head home to the Chiricahuas and tell tales of his adventure and the ruckus he caused among the silly humans out east. In the meantime, the intrepid birders of the Thursday and Friday chases are sleeping.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Discovering Antigua

There is nothing quite like the thrill of birding a new place.  During the first night anywhere, it's always difficult for me to sleep because of the excitement.  We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala at night.  As I walked the muddy steps to our cabin under the dripping tree canopy, I let my mind wander.  Which bird would I see first?

Band-backed Wrens
At dawn, I would awaken to what sounded like loud coin filled aluminum cans being shaken outside our window.  I jumped quickly out of my bed and ran to the window.  My first Guatemalan bird would be the Band-backed Wren.  So I eagerly got out of my bed and walked outside into the dark and noisy forest.  On the ground, I discover.....

White-eared Ground-sparrow
....a White-eared Ground-sparrow.  WOW!  Would all of these birds have long winded names?  Yes:)  I proceeded to take my outside shower and who should be watching me from the dark shadows?

Blue-throated Motmot
A Blue-throated Motmot.  Every morning, he perched on this wooden rail and caught bugs while I brushed my teeth.  And it kept going on and on like this during our trek into and around Antigua.  Almost every bird seen was brand new for me.  My morning breakfasts were always interrupted by a new bird popping in for a visit! Like this Azure-crowned Hummingbird.  Or.....

Azure-crowned Hummingbird
....this Blue-gray Tanager. I was eating my eggs near this peach tree and caught the sound of this bird in mid-bite.

Blue-gray Tanager
 Working the camera in a tropical setting is VERY difficult.  There is so much shade under the canopy. Let's not even talk about the humidity factor.  Oh and the leaves!  There were lots of great hiding places for birds.  Quite a challenge for a desert dweller who is used to having too much light!

Rufous-collared Sparrow
Antigua is a fairly safe city to bird. English is widely spoken. When we arrived into Guatemala City, there were taxis awaiting us to take us to nearby Antigua.  It's an old colonial town full of charm and history.  So many people come to this city and study Spanish.  Or just hang out and relax.  In fact, Antigua has all of the modern conveniences at your fingertips. There's great dining, 5 star hotel accomodations(if you need it:), and.......birding! 

So while my friend did yoga, I spied upon Squirrel Cuckoos and Bronzed Cowbirds!

Bronzed Cowbird.  Apparently there is another cowbird similar to this one known as the GIANT COWBIRD.  Define Giant:)
We stayed at an ecolodge outside of the city inside of a patch of rain forest. It was there that I met another birder and together we explored several of the hotspots around town. My plan of attack anywhere I go is to stay for several days and observe bird routines during the morning, afternoon and evening. Our first stop was the nearby Finca Pilar. 

Justin gets up close to the hummingbird feeders
 This is a great place to pick up hummingbirds.  The complex or neighborhood association maintains a hummingbird station where birders can view Magnificent Hummingbirds and larger Neotropical hummingbirds known as Sabrewings!  They make the Magnificent Hummingbird look tiny!  We had Violet and Rufous Sabrewings at this location. 

Rufous Sabrewing
There was a 5 dollar entrance fee which allowed us access to a well maintained trail inside this protected stretch of rain forest.  The best part of all was that this finca was within walking distance from the center of Antigua.  As a general rule, if you have an expensive camera, pack it away into a backpack until you reach your destination.  Once inside the gates, I took my gear out and felt extremely safe hiking along the trail to the top. Remember to bring plenty of water. 

Green-throated mountaingem
 Keep your eyes out for the Bushy-crested Jay.  They were surprisingly very shy around me.  That was a first.  I'm used to Jays coming right up and looking for peanuts.  However, I've discovered that there are several Jays that aren't so forthcoming:)  Keep your eyes open for Emerald Toucanets!  I'll feature that one in our upcoming visit to Tikal. 

Bushy-crested Jay
 Once you reach the top of the trail, there are some amazing views overlooking Finca Pilar. 

View from the top of Finca Pilar
 The Violet Sabrewing is quite the sight in sunlight! Unfortunately, I could only get a recognizable pic of it in the shade. Watch for that amethyst dazzle!  The color was so incredible that it blurred my flight shots!

Violet Sabrewing
  We began our journeys in Antigua.  But we also ended them there as well for a bit of rest. This is a great place to take the family.  As a birder, we are responsible for keeping our spouses or friends occupied while searching for those lifebirds!  Sometimes birders luck out and find one another.  That's an easy vacation plan!  But for most of us, we have to keep our non-birding company occupied.  They want monkeys.  We want birds!  Well...I like monkeys too:) Antigua offers lots of great places to explore while still keeping everyone entertained.  

For example, while my friend watches a street show, I'm spying upon a ........

....a White-eared Hummingbird!  They were very common around town.  

White-eared Hummingbird
  But let's get back to the birds!  Another wonderful place to visit with the crew is an outdoor park known as El Tenedor Del Cerro. An incredible museum/hotel known as Casa Santo Domingo sits at the bottom of the hill.  It is there you can get a free ride to the top and visit the works of aspiring Guatemalan artists.  The heart of the park is centered around the work of Efrain Recinos.  He passed away in 2011, but his work still inspires many people.  And there are birds here as well that visit the gardens!

While we were there, we saw plenty of Inca Doves, White-eared Hummingbirds and of course, the very common Clay-colored Thrush. 

Clay-colored Thrush
Antigua was a great place for me to get my bearings. For soon, we'd leave the comforts of Antigua behind and head towards isolated locales in cramped vans. 

El Tenedor Del Cerro-the Fork of the Hill
There were things that lurked in the dark forests that we had to find like Trogons and Quetzals. 

Black-headed Trogon
 So we enjoyed the comforts of Antigua while we could.  Antigua and the surrounding foothills are great places to explore.  

The Scarlet Macaws of Casa Santo Domingo
 So pack your binoculars, dust off your long lens and fill your camel pack.  On our next visit, we'll visit the ancient Mayan pyramids of Tikal.  It's a trek you don't want to miss!

So off we go in our Tuc Tuc on another Birding is Fun adventure!
For more about birds from around the world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!