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Archive for July, 2012

My first pelagic trip was off Hatteras, North Carolina, in 2008.  I used a Scopolamine patch and expected that it would completely prevent seasickness.  I threw up off and on for most of the 12-hour trip.  It took a couple of years for that memory to fade enough that I was willing to try again.  My next opportunity was in 2010 as part of the Oregon Shorebird Festival.  I had decided that maybe I was allergic to Scopolamine I had also read that getting seasick is partly psychological.   The Oregon trip would only be 5 hours, so I signed up, confidently optimistic that I would not be sick.  That trip was worse than the first.  I threw up constantly for 4 of the 5 hours; I wanted to die.  After another 2 years to recover, I decided to try again in Florida.  This time the trip would be on a 100-foot boat in July, the calmest month of the year.  I consulted with my doctor and she prescribed the Scop patch, Meclizine, and Zofran.  I bought ginger capsules, ginger cookies and candied ginger.  So, once again I optimistically got on a boat to search for birds.  And this time I was fine for the entire 18-hour trip.  I got 5 life birds, but not getting sick was the real thrill of the trip.

My first stop on the drive to Florida was Savannah NWR.  This cooperative Purple Gallinule walked right up to my car.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

My late husband, Burt, called Purple Gallinules “Lipstick birds.”  Seeing these birds, one of his favorites, brought back wonderful memories of birding with Burt in the Florida Everglades in the early 1980’s.  I enjoyed watching the birds, especially the family with several small chicks.

Purple Gallinule chicks

Purple Gallinule chicks

The highlight at Savannah, however, was two Common Nighthawks flying together shortly before dark.  I watched for over 10 minutes as the birds swooped and soared over a large field intermittently peenting.  They did not appear to be foraging; they appeared to be having fun.  They flew side by side, then one bird would get ahead and the other would hurry to catch up.  Occasionally they would fly a little circle around each other.  A choreographed dance could not have been more beautiful.  I have no idea if I was watching two males or a male and female.  I don’t know if this was common behavior or if I witnessed something very special.  I only know that I was mesmerized by the beauty of the nighthawks on a peaceful summer evening.

I saw Painted Buntings, Least Bitterns, and other great birds at Savannah, Harris Neck, and Merritt Island NWRs and Viera Wetlands.  The trip ended on a high note with more swooping and soaring over a pasture in Brantley County, Georgia, where I was privileged to witness foraging kites.  I had previously seen many Swallow-tailed Kites, but seeing a large group feeding at close range was a totally different and amazing experience.  The birders who were there when I arrived estimated that there had been 60 Swallow-tailed Kites earlier, but there still at least 20 kites when I got there.  I watched the kites for nearly an hour and then I drove the rest of the way home, tired but happy and satisfied with all the wonderful birds that I had seen during my 5-day trip.

Swallow-tailed Kites

Swallow-tailed Kites

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If you start thinking that I’m crazy as you read this, I agree with you.  It started yesterday morning with a Carolinabirds post reporting that John Fussell had found a male Ruff in breeding plumage at Cedar Island.  I thought about it for a few minutes, posted a message to Forsythbirds asking if anyone wanted to go with me, and decided that I would go regardless of whether I could find a partner for this adventure.  My preparation consisted of making arrangements for my dog and collecting my binoculars, scope, camera, and toothbrush.  I forgot my books about birding the NC coast as well as food and water.  I was in my car at 12:20 PM for a drive that Google maps said was 5-1/2 hours.  But that’s not the crazy part; all that driving would only be tedious and boring.  The crazy part was having no plan whatsoever about where I would sleep.  I expected the closest accommodations would be in Beaufort, nearly 40 miles from Cedar Island, and had no idea if there would be any vacancies since it is summer season.  I was already on the road before I started to think about these practical matters.  Due to either maturity or denial, I decided that I’d worry about it later, after I’d seen the Ruff.  Bumper to bumper traffic slowed me down for half an hour, so it was nearly 7:00 PM when I arrived at the Cedar Island ferry terminal.  And what was right beside the terminal – a restaurant and motel!  Such experiences sometimes make me believe that there really is a birding god who keeps us safe on our crazy travels and occasionally blesses us with quality views of fabulous birds.  The motel had plenty of rooms available so I went off to find the Ruff.

It took me a few minutes to find the pond, but once that task was accomplished, I immediately saw the Ruff.  I may be biased because I really like shorebirds, but I thought that he was quite a beauty with his white head and neck and brown, black, and white mottled body. The Ruff was slightly larger, both taller and chunkier, than the nearby Lesser Yellowlegs.  He flushed when the Yellowlegs gave their alarm calls and took flight, but never went far enough that he was out of sight.  I enjoyed the Ruff and other shorebirds for nearly an hour, had a crab dinner, and went to bed feeling safe and comfortable and very grateful for my good fortune.

Ruff and Lesser Yellowlegs

Nate Swick has suggested that this Ruff is the same Ruff that was found at Jamaica Bay NWR in New York on July 1.  Andrew Baksh tells the story (with photos) of discovering that bird in Ruff stuff at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.  The timing works for a bird last seen in New York on July 5 to be found in North Carolina on July 8.  For good photos of the Cedar Island Ruff, see Harry Sell’s site.  The birds look identical.

There were also many other shorebirds at the pond, including at least 25 Spotted Sandpipers, the most that I’ve ever seen together.

Cedar Island Shorebirds

Most of the Spotted Sandpipers were in breeding plumage, but the one below is a juvenile.  Note the light-brown edging on the feathers of the wing.  Also note the distinct eye ring – something that’s not mentioned in most field guides, but is typical of juvenile Spotted Sandpipers.

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Big Bend sunset.  Photo by Warren Jones.

Big Bend sunset. Photo by Warren Jones.

After our group met in Hondo, Texas, it was on to Neal’s Lodges in Concan in hopes of seeing Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos.  We found the warbler quite cooperative and all had great views at Neal’s and again at Lost Maples SNA.  The vireo, however, did not want to be seen as much as we wanted to see it.  One flashed by a couple of times, but I did not get a look that I could count.  A lovely Tropical Parula was a bonus bird at Neal’s, though, which we all saw well.  Another treat at Neal’s were the plentiful and cooperative Bell’s Vireos.  Unlike their black-capped cousins, these birds perched in the open for us.

The most awe-inspiring experience in Concan for me, though, was our visit to the Frio Bat Cave where 10 to 12 million Mexican free-tailed Bats emerge from the cave and whirl into the sky just before dark.  We stood outside the cave entrance where we could hear the whoosh, feel the breeze created by their wings, and smell the odor of the bats (surprisingly not unpleasant) as they flew a few feet over our heads and ascended into the evening sky.  I found this amazingly peaceful.  An added bonus was a Canyon Wren who hopped around on the rocks outside the cave entrance while we were listening to the guide and waiting for the bats to exit the cave.  It was an unexpected treat to get close looks at a bird that is more often heard than seen.

At Big Bend, a Greater Roadrunner appeared in front of the lodge before we even got the cars unloaded, a sign of the good birding ahead.  The Colima Warbler, the reason that we were in Big Bend, rewarded those of us who climbed the Pinnacle Trail with wonderful views.  It was also great to have quality views of Common Black-Hawks and Gray Hawks.  Another interesting sighting was a Blue-winged Warbler at the Sam Nail Ranch.  We were puzzled when we saw the bird because it should not have been there.  It is a bird of the Eastern US.  But we could not make the bird into anything other than a Blue-winged Warbler.  Later we learned that the bird had been discovered the day before our sighting and was reported on the rare bird alerts.

Seeing a bird really well can be as exciting for me as seeing a life bird.  I suppose you could call it seeing life field marks.  Such was the case with the Vesper Sparrow that I watched in front of the camp store at Big Bend.  The little sparrow stretched its neck upward to reach the grass seeds and seemed to not care at all that I was watching from only 10-15 feet away.  It was exciting to be close enough to actually see the rufous shoulder patch.  Now I could understand why this bird was once called Bay-winged Bunting, and before that, Grass Finch.  The name Vesper Sparrow was first used by New England naturalist Wilson Flagg in 1858 because he thought that the bird sang most fervently during the sun’s decline until dusk.

Christmas Mountains Oasis provided a wonderful stop on our way from Big Bend to the Davis Mountains.  Carolyn Ohl-Johnson, CMO’s owner, was a delightful host who was interesting, energetic, and very welcoming.  I got my 500th ABA bird there – a male Varied Bunting.  Carolyn wrote about our visit on her blog and posted a photo of our group.

Montezuma Quail.  Photo by Warren Jones.

Montezuma Quail. Photo by Warren Jones.

We wrapped up our trip with two days in the Davis Mountains and we were rewarded with incredibly close long looks at the star of Davis Mountains State Park, Montezuma Quail.  On two separate visits, both a male and female came within 10 feet of us.  They also fed surprisingly close to javelinas on one of those visits.  These sightings occurred at the official quail viewing station where the feeders also drew in quite a few other birds.  My favorites were the Green-tailed Towhees who also allowed us wonderful close looks.

Back at the Hotel Limpia, a charming Say’s Phoebe graced the lobby entrance with her constant presence as she attended her nest on the porch.

Say's Phoebe.  Photo by Warren Jones.

Say’s Phoebe. Photo by Warren Jones.

Many thanks go to Warren Jones for permission to use his photos in this post.

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