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Archive for the ‘Travel for Birding’ Category

Diane and I had signed up for birding packages at Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge.  That meant that we birded in groups, but they changed daily as people came and left the lodges.  You can sign up to start any day of the week and for any length of time.  The constantly changing groups (and guides) made it interesting.  We enjoyed meeting other nature enthusiasts and getting to know several of the guides.  On what was scheduled to be our last day of birding, we were very pleased that Tino would guide us again.  Only one other birder joined our group, so it was great to have just four of us.  It’s much easier to see the skulky little birds on the forest floor with a small group.

We had a great day of birding and I saw 10 new birds for Panama.  My favorite that day may have been the Orange-billed Nightengale-Thrush.  First, how can you not love a bird with a name like that?  And, second, it was a lovely bird.

Orange-billed Nightengale-Thrush

Orange-billed Nightengale-Thrush

Other life birds that day were Spotted Woodcreeper, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and a couple of hummingbirds.  We also saw two wonderful butterflies, a Regal Anteros and a Black-bellied Anteros.  Tino was really excited when he found them, so I assume that they may not be common.  My photo isn’t as clear as I’d like because the butterfly was perched just a little out of reach, but we had great scope views.  Note the fuzzy little legs.  Isn’t it adorable?

Black-bellied Anteros

Black-bellied Anteros

We had so much fun that day, the last in our birding package, that we decided to pay extra to go birding with Tino again the next morning.  Guests at the Canopy lodges can always select trips “a la carte.”

The next morning, the skies were threatening, but we went out anyway.  In Panama, it rains daily in the summer, so they learn to work with the weather.  Tino decided to take us back to a place that Diane and I had birded earlier in the week, Sendero Las Minas, a little dirt road with an agricultural field and a chicken farm on one side and forest on the other side.  It was especially rewarding to see the Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch perched atop a fence post singing.  On our first trip down this road, he hid in the tall grasses and we could barely see him.

Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch

Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch

It wasn’t long until it started raining, but we were able to take cover under the eaves of a little abandoned cabin.  It felt magical to stand there with our little group of four, protected from the rain, but feeling it all around us.  And, of course, Tino continued to find birds while we waited there.  Soon, the rain had stopped and we were birding on the road again.  We saw wonderful birds – Tawny-crested Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and many more including some familiar birds like Eastern Meadowlark.

Thick-billed Seed-Finch, also seen along Sendero Las Minas

Thick-billed Seed-Finch, also seen along Sendero Las Minas

There were also beautiful flowers along this road.  One of our favorites was Psychotria elata, a tropical tree commonly known as Hot Lips or Hooker’s Lips, for the red bracts that resemble luscious lips for a short time before bursting open to reveal the plant’s small white flowers.

Hot Lips, Psychotria elata. Photo by Carole McIvor.

Hot Lips, Psychotria elata. Photo by Carole McIvor.

Near the turn-around point at the top of the road, we ran into a small herd of about eight cows, led by a big bull, coming down the road. Tino was familiar with their behavior and didn’t say anything to frighten us, but got Carole and me off the road to allow the cows to pass. Diane was not close enough to hear Tino’s command to make way for the cows and continued slowly walking down the middle of the road with the cows following behind her. Tino was very relieved when we were all together again and then he told us that the cows could have been dangerous.

Coming down the road behind us. Photo by Carole McIvor.

Coming down the road behind us. Photo by Carole McIvor.

The excitement of the morning was not over yet, though.  Tino had hoped to find a Blue-throated Toucanet for us.  They are listed on the Canopy checklist as “common,”  but we had not seen one yet.  And, we did not see one that morning, but just before we got back to our vehicle, Tino found something even better, the rare Yellow-eared Toucanet.  We struggled for a view of the bird as it hid in a tree, but it was exciting to see something so special.

Tino's heavily-cropped digiscope is blurry due to the cloudy weather, but the Yellow-eared Toucanet is clearly identifiable.

Tino’s heavily-cropped digiscope is blurry due to the cloudy weather, but the Yellow-eared Toucanet is clearly identifiable.

That afternoon, April 30, was our last at Canopy Lodge.  We enjoyed more free time watching the feeders and sitting on the little balcony outside our room.  We finally got quick, but good, looks at the fast little Rufous-crested Coquette as he dashed in for a sip of nectar at the purple porterweed flowers.

The stream by the lodge was a continual source of delight.  In the photo below, a Common Basilisk basks in the sun on a rock.

Common Basilisk in the stream by Canopy Lodge

Common Basilisk in the stream by Canopy Lodge

The following day, we had our last looks at the lovely Canopy Lodge birds as we enjoyed a leisurely morning getting ready to leave for Panama City.  The Scarlet-backed and Flame-rumped Tanagers put on a good show, as always.  The female Scarlet-backed Tanager was one of my favorites.  I thought that she was as beautiful as the male.

Female Scarlet-backed Tanager

Female Scarlet-backed Tanager

We never got tired of the common, but gorgeous, Flame-rumped Tanagers.

Male Flame-rumped Tanager

Male Flame-rumped Tanager

Perhaps the most common feeder bird of all was Thick-billed Euphonia.  We enjoyed watching males and females of all ages.

Thick-billed Euphonia (adult male)

Thick-billed Euphonia (adult male)

Late that morning, our driver picked us up and took us back to the lovely Country Inn & Suites where we had spent our first night in Panama City.  We walked the Amador Causeway where we found our last life bird in Panama, a Northern Scrub-Flycatcher.  Near the end of the causeway, we estimated over a hundred each of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds, a wonderful goodbye from Panama.

We had a nice dinner outdoors by the canal and left before dawn the next morning for our flights home.  Memories of this amazing trip will stay with us forever.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird

More photos can be found in the following Flickr albums:

Panama 2017 -Birds
Panama 2017 – Insects (mostly moths & butterflies)
Panama 2017 – Mammals & Herps
Panama 2017 – People & Places

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Danilo Jr. greeted us warmly when we arrived at Canopy Lodge just in time for lunch on April 25.  He had been one of our favorite guides at the Tower and we were happy to see him again.  After lunch, we had a little time for birding on our own and exploring the grounds of the lodge.  A beautiful creek provided the perfect place for for Mrs. Flame-rumped Tanager to have a nice bath.

Female Flame-rumped Tanager

Female Flame-rumped Tanager

I also had just enough time to find a life bird for myself before Danilo took us out on our first birding trip from the lodge.  I really liked the Dusky-faced Tanagers, who looked quite different from the other tanagers to me.  A few weeks after I got home, I learned that the latest taxonomic changes moved this bird to a new family, confirming that it really is different from the other tanagers like the Flame-rumped Tanager above.

Dusky-faced Tanager

Dusky-faced Tanager

While I was photographing the tanagers, Diane relaxed on our room’s lovely balcony and found herself a life bird, too, a Bay-headed Tanager in the tree tops, which was particularly exciting because it’s a species that does not come to feeders.  I would eventually see one a few days later.

Our first guided trip was a walk from Canopy Lodge to Canopy Adventure, where more adventurous (and younger) folks can climb to the top of the ridge and then soar through the treetops on a zip-line.  We took a different path, easier, but still steep and slippery, to look for Mottled Owls, which we did not find.  When I teased Danilo that I wanted something for our efforts, he found a nice Orange-billed Sparrow.  We also enjoyed seeing the gorgeous stream and waterfall.  And, we got two wonderful life birds on the walk there, Lance-tailed Manakin and the very shy Bay Wren.  Sorry, I wasn’t able to get photos of either.

Diane in front of the beautiful waterfall at Canopy Adventure.

Diane in front of the beautiful waterfall at Canopy Adventure.

Danilo also introduced us to the compost pile, a big heap of rotting fruit just a short distance along a little path by the creek at the lodge.  We had seen our first Black-faced Antthrush on Pipeline Road just the day before, but here we really got to know the bird.  He was shy like so many of the birds in the rainforest, but not so skulky that we could not see him at all.  With just a little patience, nearly every trip to the compost pile was rewarded with views of this adorable little bird strutting through the open area by the rotting fruit, holding his tail erect and singing his “happy” song.  I thought that he would be a great character for an animated movie.  Of all the birds that we saw in Panama, this was the one who stole our hearts.

Black-faced Antthrush. A poor photo, but you can't hide that "personality."

Black-faced Antthrush. A poor photo, but you can’t hide that “personality.”

We had a larger group the next morning with Danilo Sr. guiding us for our first full day of birding at the lodge.  We were only a couple of hours from Canopy Tower, but the habitat was sufficiently different that we saw many new species.  I got 13 life birds that day, my favorite being this gorgeous male Silver-throated Tanager.

Silver-throated Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager

The following morning was much like the previous with our group of 7 and several more life birds.  One that cooperated for a photo was this White-bellied Antbird.

White-bellied Antbird

White-bellied Antbird

We also had nice looks at a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

That afternoon we had a special treat.  Diane and I needed to see the Spectacled Owls that were nesting nearby.  The others had already seen them, so Tino, a bird and butterfly guide and the manager of Canopy Lodge, took Diane and me on a private tour.  We had incredible looks at both an adult Spectacled Owl and a recently fledged juvenile.

Spectacled Owl (adult)

Spectacled Owl (adult)

Spectacled Owl was on my most-wanted list and I was thrilled to see these birds.

Spectacled Owl (juvenile)

Spectacled Owl (juvenile)

Other wonderful sightings that afternoon included a Tody Motmot and a Yellow-green Vireo on her nest.

Yellow-green Vireo on her nest

Yellow-green Vireo on her nest

The following day, Diane and I explored the lodge grounds by ourselves.  We had scheduled a couple of extra days so that we could relax and do whatever we wanted part of the time.  I attempted to photograph a blue morpho butterfly, which turned out to be impossible, even with plenty of time to work on it.  I was able to get a fairly clear photo of the butterfly with its wings closed, but as soon as it opened them, the butterfly immediately became a blue blur.  “Blue Morpho” refers to a group of butterflies, not a single species.  The one I photographed is a Common Morpho, Morpho helenor.

The Social Flycatcher by the natural pond with the treehouse was more cooperative.  One of the guides told us that a pair was nesting in that area.

Social Flycatcher

Social Flycatcher

A Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet also posed for a photo.

Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet

And, just as at home, no bird feeder is complete without a squirrel.  Red Squirrels did not monopolize the feeders, but we saw them frequently.

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel

Canopy Lodge was a great place to explore a little and rejuvenate ourselves.  We thoroughly enjoyed the free time and we were looking forward to more guided trips the next day as our Panama adventure continued.

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Sunday morning, April 23, was one of the luckiest of the trip.  We started right outside Canopy Tower on Semaphore Hill Road.  Our guide, Domi, soon heard a bird on everyone’s target list – a Pheasant Cuckoo.  They are very secretive birds and difficult to find when they are not calling.  But, the bird was off the road and back in the forest.  Domi and the two other birders scrambled up the hill on the side of the road and through the thick vegetation to find the bird.  Diane and I hesitated.  I didn’t know if I could make it up the hill without help and certainly they were just going to push the bird deeper into the forest anyway.  Well, they came back smiling and excited; they had had wonderful looks at the bird.  And, then, instead of saying we made a bad choice, too bad, they all encouraged Diane and me to go see the bird.  So, Domi helped us up the little hill and we scrambled into the jungle.  Amazingly, the cuckoo was in the same place the others had seen it.  There are no words to describe how thrilled I was to see this bird and to even get a photo.

Pheasant Cuckoo

Pheasant Cuckoo

The day continued to be charmed.  That afternoon we had great looks at another skulky bird, a gorgeous Rosy Thrush-Tanager.  Domi led us off the trail and under the tree where the bird was perched.  We saw little pieces of the bird as we moved one way and then another to peer through thick branches.  I must have taken 200 photos and luckily the one below shows most of the beautiful bird.

Rosy Thrush-Tanager

Rosy Thrush-Tanager

There were seven of us that afternoon, but the larger group didn’t stop this beautiful Golden-collared Manakin from sitting in the open for over five minutes right in front of us, unusually bold behavior for this species.  While we got incredible close looks at the manakin, we were not privileged to see a courtship display, one of the most amazing sights in the avian world.  This very interesting article from Audubon, Do a Little Dance, Make a Little Love: Golden-collared Manakins Get Their Groove On to Woo the Ladies includes a short video of the courtship display.  The picky females judge the performances of the males and mate with the one that they perceive to be the most attractive and the best dancer.

A Golden-collared Manakin looks at us with more curiosity than fear

A Golden-collared Manakin looks at us with more curiosity than fear

Another fun experience that afternoon was watching a pair of Yellow-throated Toucans right above our heads.  That’s a tree frog that it is chowing down for lunch – yum!

Yellow-throated Toucan

Yellow-throated Toucan

April 24 was our last full day at Canopy Tower.  Our group had missed White-throated Crake on our first trip to the Ammo Dump Ponds, so Domi took us there again early in the morning before we went to Pipeline Road.  Crakes are in the rail family and most are very shy birds.  But, this time we were successful and got good looks at several birds.

White-throated Crake

White-throated Crake

A potoo was the highlight of Pipeline Road again, but on this section of the road it was a Common Potoo.  An adult potoo with a baby had been reported at this location for several days, but we were the first to see the baby without one of its parents.  This young one will still be fed by mom or dad for a while longer, though.  The bright pink gape (inside of the mouth) functions as a highly visible guide to show the parents where to deposit food.

A Common Potoo on its first day without a parent.

A Common Potoo on its first day without a parent.

We also saw this beautiful snake, a South American Forest Racer.  It moved fast, so I was happy to get any photo at all.

South American Forest Racer on Pipeline Road

South American Forest Racer on Pipeline Road

Panama has fabulous butterflies, but I didn’t have enough time and attention to focus on both butterflies and birds in the same trip as much as I would have liked.  I tried to sneak in a photo of a butterfly when I could, though.  I especially liked this Many-banded Daggerwing that we found on Pipeline Road.

Many-banded Daggerwing

Many-banded Daggerwing

That afternoon, it was back to Gamboa, where one of my favorites was this Gray-headed Tanager.  This photo is unique as it’s the first time that I ever used my camera before my binoculars.  I usually look first and then shoot.  But, I was trying to photograph something else when I heard “Gray-headed Tanager” behind me, so I just turned around with my camera still poised and clicked.  I was lucky; although he was close, he did not stay long and I would have missed the photo if I had indulged in a binocular look first.

Gray-headed Tanager

Gray-headed Tanager

We were soon back at the Tower, happy with all of the wonderful birds we had seen in the last five days, but also sad that our birding trips there were done.  We had a little time on our own before our departure the next morning.  Sometimes I used my free time to check out the moths that had come in to the lights the night before.  Here is just one of the beauties I saw there, tentatively identified as Synchlora gerularia.

Moth at Canopy Tower tentatively identified as Synchlora gerularia.

Moth at Canopy Tower tentatively identified as Synchlora gerularia.

In between birding trips, I also tried to get photos of the several species of hummingbirds that can be seen at the Tower.  White-necked Jacobins were common; here is a female below.

Female White-necked Jacobin

Female White-necked Jacobin

Blue-chested Hummingbirds were also plentiful at Canopy Tower.

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Blue-chested Hummingbird

And, then, all too quickly as usual, it was time to spend one more morning on the observation deck and say goodbye to Canopy Tower.  But, our Panama adventure was only half over.  We were going to Canopy Lodge next.

Diane and me in front of Canopy Tower

Diane and me in front of Canopy Tower

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Blue-headed Parrots feasted on fruits in the trees right outside our hotel room window.  Diane and I had arrived in Panama City late the previous night, April 19, and we were excited to have such a wonderful start to our two weeks in Panama.

Blue-headed parrot on the grounds of Country Inn & Suites, Panama Canal

Blue-headed parrot on the grounds of Country Inn & Suites, Panama Canal

We had just enough time for a scrumptious breakfast and a little more bird watching at the County Inn & Suites, Panama Canal, before a driver from Canopy Tower picked us up and whisked us off to the world-famous remodeled military radar station that we had been dreaming about for months.  Tatiana, Manager of the Tower, greeted us warmly and showed us around.  Next, it was time for lunch in the lovely dining room on the top floor of the tower with open windows all around the circular room.

Gartered Trogon

Gartered Trogon

After lunch, we were off on our first birding trip – to Summit Ponds.  It was a wonderful mix of seeing “old friends,” birds I had previously seen in Belize or Ecuador like the Gartered Trogon above, and nine life birds including Chestnut-headed Oropendolas working on their nests.

There was one more life bird for us after dinner, a surprise Black-breasted Puffbird that had come in through the open windows.  We could see the bird roosting in the top part of the tower above our heads while we ate dinner.  Alex, one of the bird guides, rescued the bird and gave us up-close looks the next morning before he released it.  The puffbird sat on the deck for a couple of minutes to recover, and then flew off, none the worse for its adventure.  Alex said that this was the first time a bird had flown into the tower.

Black-breasted Puffbird after its rescue from the top of the Tower.

Black-breasted Puffbird after its rescue from the top of the Tower.

On our first morning at the Tower, we awakened before 5:00 AM to the screams of about 40 Howler Monkeys, who sounded like they were all right outside our windows.  The tower is all metal causing sound to reverberate throughout the building and making the monkeys sound even louder.  We were thrilled to feel so close to nature in the jungle.  We expected to hear monkeys “talking” with that intensity every day, but subsequent mornings they were much more subdued.  A little later, we watched this adult and baby feeding in the trees.

Mantled Howler Monkeys

Mantled Howler Monkeys

Blue Cotinga

Blue Cotinga

Mornings at the Tower start with coffee on the observation deck at 6:30 AM.  The deck is on the roof of the tower and gives nature lovers a 360 degree view of the surrounding canopy and landscape beyond.  On our first morning, we saw a Blue Cotinga in the distant trees, one of the signature birds of the Tower and one we especially wanted to see since Diane and I were staying in the Blue Cotinga room.  A Keel-billed Toucan was another beauty seen from the observation deck.

Keel-billed Toucan seen from the Canopy Tower observation deck

Keel-billed Toucan seen from the Canopy Tower observation deck

Our first full day at the Tower was fabulous.  One of everyone’s favorites was this gorgeous White Hawk observed on Plantation Road.

White Hawk

White Hawk

I was happy to get the photo of the Broad-billed Motmot below.  When I was studying for the trip, I wondered how easy to would be to see the green chin on the Broad-billed Motmot which helps distinguish it from the larger, but similar, Rufous Motmot.

Broad-billed Motmot

Broad-billed Motmot

We quickly learned that the Canopy Tower guides have excellent digiscoping skills and they were very happy to take photos through the scopes with our iPhones for us.  Danielo Jr. digiscoped this beautiful pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds below with Diane’s phone.

White-whiskered Puffbird pair

White-whiskered Puffbird pair

Later that afternoon, we birded along the road to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort marina where I saw many familiar birds – Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, herons and egrets, and Common Gallinules.  But, there were new birds, too, including an American Pygmy Kingfisher who declined the photo op.  The Gray-cowled Wood-Rail was a life bird for me, too, and it did cooperate for a photo.  It was pretty bad, though, since it was on the other side of a lake and the light was failing.  Still, I was thrilled, not knowing that a few days later we would see them just a few feet away under the bird feeders at the Canopy Lodge.

A Gray-cowled Wood-Rail crosses the creek by Canopy Lodge on its way to eat bananas under the feeders.

A Gray-cowled Wood-Rail crosses the creek by Canopy Lodge on its way to eat bananas under the feeders.

That afternoon we also saw a Green-and-Black Poison-dart Frog, the only one of the trip.  My trip to Central America would not have felt complete without a poison frog.

Green-and-Black Poison-dart Frog

Green-and-Black Poison-dart Frog

On Saturday morning we birded the famous Pipeline Road.  During World War II, a pipeline through the Isthmus of Panama was built to transport fuel from one ocean to the other in the event that the canal was attacked.  Fortunately, the pipeline was never used.  Today, the road runs for 17.5 km through Soberanía National Park and provides access to undisturbed rainforest.  It is one of the premier birding destinations in Central America.

One highlight was quality time with a Great Tinamou shuffling around on the forest floor.  It sounded like the usual way of seeing a tinamou is for the guide to play the call and birders to catch a quick glimpse of the bird as it runs across the road.  We were pleased to leisurely observe this bird without disturbing it.

Great Tinamou

Great Tinamou

In that same spot, we also found this gorgeous Whooping Motmot on the forest floor.  Below is another fabulous digiscope by Danielo Jr.

Whooping Motmot

Whooping Motmot

We also saw a White-nosed Coati, first brief looks through the jungle vegetation on the side of the road, and then a clear view as it walked right out into the open!

White-nosed Coati

White-nosed Coati

White-nosed Coati

The sweetest sight that morning may have been a baby Great Potoo snuggled up close to one of its parents at the top of a tall snag.  Potoos are odd birds.  They have large eyes and huge mouths to facilitate night-time hunting of aerial insects such as beetles and locusts.  They swoop out from the top of a tree stump and return to the same stump after capturing their prey.  Their cryptic plumage provides the perfect camouflage which allows them to roost on tree stumps during the day, too, and not even be noticed.  Great Potoo is a big bird at 19-24 inches long and the largest potoo species.

Great Potoo

Great Potoo

This was just the beginning of our Panama adventure.  Stay tuned for part 2.

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I still remember the first time that I travelled to Austin, Texas.  Running through O’Hare Airport to catch my plane to Florida, where I would spend a couple of weeks with my parents while my husband looked for an apartment.  Being aware, but not afraid, that flights to Florida were being hijacked to Cuba.  The flight to Houston on a jet and then the final leg to Austin on a small prop plane.  It was 1968 and I was 8-months pregnant with my first child.  A month later, my son, David, would be born at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin.

Me shortly before and just after the birth of my son David in 1968 I think the photos were taken at Bastrop State Park.

Me shortly before and just after the birth of my son David in 1968 I think the photos were taken at Bastrop State Park.

This trip in March 2017 was much easier.  I just got in my Subaru Outback and drove to Austin.   The purpose of traveling to Texas this time was to visit Trissie, mother of Dave’s daughter, Amber.  Sadly for me, Dave and Trissie are no longer together.  Dave is still in China, but Trissie is now in the US and engaged to Mike.  Trissie is familiar with my birding addiction from our time together in China, so I knew that I could combine birding with a family visit.

My road trip skills are improving, although I still have much to learn about planning and finding birds.  The first day on the road, I drove through heavy storms for much of the way, but it was clear when I got to Nashville.  I didn’t have time to go to the park that I had originally planned, but I found J. Percy Priest Dam just a couple of miles from my hotel.  I’m easily entertained, so I enjoyed the cutest mongrel Mallard that I’d ever seen, studying the feet on the coots, and watching a Common Loon try to choke down a very large fish.

On day two, I drove to Texarkana and stayed the night on the Arkansas side.  My planned stop near Little Rock hadn’t worked out, so I decided to find some Arkansas birds in the morning before driving into Texas.  The next morning was magical – sunny, perfect temperature, no wind – and Alex Smith County Park proved to be one of my favorite stops of the entire trip.  A dirt road passed the official park, a lake, and a wetland on the way to the river.  A couple dozen Gadwall were on the lake.  When they flew from one side to the other with their white speculums gleaming in the sunlight, I thought that I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Hermit Thrush basking in the sun at Alex Smith County Park in Arkansas.

Hermit Thrush basking in the sun at Alex Smith County Park in Arkansas.

I drove on to Austin, where it was great to see Trissie again and meet Mike.  On Saturday, our first full day together, my hosts indulged me with a trip to Balcones Canyonlands, where two endangered species, Golden-checked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, breed.  It was a bit too early for either species, but the landscape was beautiful and I hope that Trissie and Mike found a beautiful place for hiking.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a species that I saw at Commons Ford Park and again later at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a species that I saw at Commons Ford Park and again later at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Andrew Dickinson, the son of friends, lives in Austin and we had arranged an outing for Sunday morning at Commons Ford Park.  Trissie and Mike were good sports and got up early to go with me.  It was a nice introduction to Travis County birding and exciting that Andrew found an early Northern Parula.  I also saw my first western birds here – Spotted Towhee, Black-crested Titmouse, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

That afternoon, we toured the Texas state capitol because it seemed like something that tourists should do.  We were all a little surprised at how interesting we found the capitol and how much we enjoyed the tour.

Great-tailed Grackles were abundant on the Austin capitol grounds.

Great-tailed Grackles were abundant on the Austin capitol grounds.

Monday was one of my favorite days.  Mike had to go to work, but Trissie took the day off and we went to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  A volunteer immediately greeted us and pointed out a Great Horned Owl on a nest right above the entrance to the courtyard.  “Athena,” as she is called by the staff, has nested in the same location for 8 years!  She just sat there watching all the visitors look at her and take photographs, but she must have felt safe from predators.

Look carefully under the sotol to see Athena's eyes just peeking over the edge of the planter.

Look carefully under the sotol to see Athena’s eyes just peeking over the edge of the planter.

I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden where I found a new butterfly, White-striped Longtail.

I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden where I found a new butterfly, White-striped Longtail.

A gorgeous Texas Spiny Lizard.

A gorgeous Texas Spiny Lizard.

Trissie became engrossed in the beautiful books that were available for browsing and we both enjoyed the film about Lady Bird Johnson.  She was an amazing woman who accomplished much good and I now have an increased appreciation for her numerous environmental contributions.

Trissie enjoying the arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Trissie enjoying the arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Next it was a trip to the Alamo for Trissie and me.  It’s a place that everyone should go once, but once is enough for most, so Mike was happy that Trissie could go with me.  We enjoyed being tourists and walked the river front after touring the Alamo.

I went to Pace Bend Park by myself on Wednesday and could have spent days there.  I foolishly did not read eBird reports before I went, so I missed a lot of birds, but did find the only Canyon Towhee of the trip, more Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, and several pretty butterflies.

'Olive' Juniper Hairstreak

‘Olive’ Juniper Hairstreak

That evening Carlos Ross, a new friend made on Facebook, met us at Commons Ford Park to look (well, actually listen) for Common Poorwill.  It was a lovely evening and the four of us were the only people at the park.  We talked about the mysteries of birds and life while we waited.  And, then I heard the soft “Poor will, Poor will” in the distance.  Yay!  This was my only life bird of the trip.

Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker

I had planned to leave on Thursday, but I couldn’t tear myself away from Texas birds, so Trissie and Mike invited me to stay with them another day.  The volunteer we had met earlier in the week at the LBJ Wildflower Center had shown us some beautiful photos that he took at Pedernales Falls State Park, so we decided to go there on our last day together.  We walked into the bird blind at the park and my jaw dropped.  The bird area contained a large pool/fountain and several tree stumps stuffed with suet – all designed to draw in the birds.  And, did it ever draw them in!  Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers up close.  A flock of Cedar Waxwings in the pool.  Good looks at Spotted Towhee and Lincoln’s Sparrows.  We saw only 16 species, but some like Bewick’s Wren were birds that I had not seen anywhere else on this trip.

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

The next day, Friday, I really had to start heading home, so I reluctantly said goodbye to Trissie.  But I was greedy and drove two hours west to Pedernales Falls before heading east.  The difference from the previous day was astonishing.  It was so quiet that I could hardly believe it was the same place.  But it was still nice to do my last Texas birding at such a wonderful place.

Pine Warbler at an I-30 rest stop in Arkansas.

Pine Warbler at an I-30 rest stop in Arkansas.

The drive home was uneventful.  I have learned to pace myself by not driving too far each day.  I stopped at nearly every rest area and walked around for 20-30 minutes with my binoculars and camera.  I usually didn’t find anything more exciting than robins or chickadees, but sometimes I got lucky as with a lovely male Pine Warbler in Arkansas.  I will definitely be doing more road trips.  One of them is sure to be to Texas again to visit Trissie and Mike and see more Texas birds and butterflies.

Texas Indian Paintbrush

Texas Indian Paintbrush

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“I learned that hot spots aren’t hot every day, even at the right time of the year.”  I wrote that about visits to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and High Island, Texas, during my big 2012 Texas trip.  It sounds like I learned a valuable lesson, right?  Wrong. I left for Minnesota in late October already counting my life Northern Goshawk that I would see at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge.  How could I miss?  “They fly right over your head” folks said when describing the wondrous spectacle of hawk migration in Duluth.  Well, I did miss the bird.  But, fortunately, I also had other goals for the trip.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

Ever since I bought my new wilderness green Subaru Outback two years ago, I have been dreaming of birding road trips.  Until this fall, my longest trips had been to Florida, but now I had an opportunity to test drive a more adventurous trip.  I would also have a chance to indulge my growing obsession with state birding. I have had an interest in seeing the number of states on my birding lists grow for a long time, but the new eBird personal profile pages with maps fueled a need to fill in the blank states.  If I took the western route north and a more eastern route home, I could add five new states.

My first new state was Missouri.  I spent the night just the other side of St. Louis and checked the BirdsEye app on my phone.  Cuivre River State Park was just half an hour away and many birds had been reported there.  Perfect!  I drove to the park on the morning of Wednesday, October 26.  I quickly discovered that the park is huge (6,300 acres) and I didn’t have a clue about where to find the best birding spots.  I did not find many birds that morning, but I enjoyed driving around the park and walking a couple of short trails.  Note for my next trip: you can’t do too much research about birding locations.

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

The next state was Iowa, where I met Tom Dunkerton, an excellent photographer and naturalist who I met in Florida a few years ago.  Due to schedule constraints, we expected to have only one morning together, but Tom surprised me by calling Wednesday afternoon and saying that if I could get to Neal Smith NWR before dark, he would show me around.  That was incentive enough to drive there from Missouri without dawdling along the way with unnecessary stops.  We had about 45 minutes to drive around the immense NWR before dark, a place I will be sure to spend time on my next trip.

A young Harris's Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

A young Harris’s Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

Tom picked me up on Thursday morning and we headed to one of his favorite sparrow spots – Jester Park.  We saw several species, all up close, feeding on grass and weed seeds.  I could have stood there all day soaking in the beauty of these birds.  Tom captured the magic of the morning with this video of a young Harris’s Sparrow singing.

The best surprise of the trip was that LeConte’s Sparrows were still in the area.  I had assumed that they would all be south by then, but a few lingering birds were still around, so we left Jester Park to look for LeConte’s Sparrows.  I was thrilled to get wonderful close looks and even a few photographs.

Le Conte's Sparrow in Iowa

Le Conte’s Sparrow in Iowa

I wish that morning could have lasted for days, but Tom had to get to work and I needed to drive to Minnesota.

It was great to see Diane, one of my favorite birding buddies, and we enjoyed the chance to catch up during our drive to Duluth the next morning.  On Friday afternoon, we met Angie and the three of us went to Hawk Ridge, location of one of the best-known hawk watches in the country.  I was shocked to discover that they had seen very few raptors that morning.  The weather was awful so the prospects for the afternoon were no better.  The hawk counters advised us to come back in the morning at 7:45 AM.

Sax Zim Bog was less than an hour away, so we headed that way and spent the afternoon enjoying the simple pleasures of the bog.  Our favorite sight was a large field with a carcass that had attracted four Bald Eagles, three magpies, crows, and ravens.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

The following morning we returned to Hawk Ridge.  I patiently watched the Goshawkless skies for over four hours before giving up.  The few raptors that had come by were too distant to see well, so I didn’t feel like we’d be giving up much if we left.  If I was going to see a Goshawk, I wanted to see it well.  They did have one juvenile Goshawk after we left, but I did not regret the lovely afternoon drive along the Lake Superior shoreline enjoying a gorgeous fall day with friends.

By this time, I had reconciled myself to missing the target bird of the trip, so when Angie told Diane and me that Sparky Stensaas, executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, was leading a field trip at the bog on Sunday, we immediately decided that we wanted to go.  I was surprised to see about 25 birders show up the next morning.  It would have been worth it just to hear Sparky’s commentary on the bog and its birds.  We learned about Rough-legged Hawks.  The have tiny beaks because they eat small prey, mostly voles.  And, it’s suspected that they can see concentrations of vole urine.  Amazing!  And, we had great views of a Rough-legged Hawk hunting in the bog.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim bog Welcome Center.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

We also saw two Ruffed Grouse during Sparky’s trip, but I was unable to get a photo.  Sparky gave us directions for a route back to the highway with good chances for more grouse.  We saw one right away, but a passing truck flushed it into the woods.  And, then we saw another.  This was the most cooperative grouse ever, allowing us long indulgent looks and many photographs.  The bird did look at us with a wary eye, but then went back to feeding on the side of the road, and finally walked into the woods.  It was, as Diane called it, a sacred moment, and one we will always cherish.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

Diane and I drove back to her house near Minneapolis that afternoon and I left for the long, slow drive home the next morning, on Halloween day.

The first stop on my way south was in Illinois, to stay the night and visit with my friend David’s mother, Darlene.  We discovered that Rock Cut State Park was just a couple of miles from her house, so I invited Darlene to go to the park with me on Tuesday morning.  We didn’t see many birds, but did find quite a few butterflies and enjoyed our walk on a gorgeous fall morning.

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

Our walk was longer than planned because I took the wrong trail.  We were lost, but we ran into a man walking his dog who gave us directions.  We walked a while longer, following his directions, and suddenly the man and dog were walking towards us.  He had come back to check on us and walked the rest of the trail with us.  He waited with us when we stopped to catch our breath and helped Darlene over a rough spot in the trail.

After this heart-warming start to the day, I drove almost to Indianapolis.  On Wednesday, I continued the pattern that was developing for travel days – visit a park in the morning and drive in the afternoon.  This time is was Indianapolis’ Eagle Creek Park, one of the largest city parks in the nation with 1,400 acres of water and 3,900 acres of forest.

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

On Thursday morning, I visited the last park of the trip, Hisle Farm Park, near Lexington, Kentucky.  I picked it because it looked like it wouldn’t be far out of my way, not because I expected much.  No one else was there when I arrived and I didn’t see or hear any birds.  I got out of my car anyway and soon heard meadowlarks singing.  I walked in their direction and soon heard more birds.  I walked about two miles through fields and along the wooded edges.  Song Sparrows were everywhere, Robins and Cedar Waxwings covered the treetops.  In one little spot in the sun, I watched Song, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows, Titmice, Chickadees, Goldfinches, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and other birds all feeding on the ground and in the low berry-covered shrubs.  The temperature was just right; there was the slightest breeze.  It was a perfect end to the birding for my trip.

Another Harris's Sparrow from Iowa. Can't get enough of these beauties!

Another Harris’s Sparrow from Iowa. Can’t get enough of these beauties!

I really did not see a large number of birds on this trip, just 66 species, but I did add birds from five new states.  It could have been my poor vision and hearing, poor planning, or just plain laziness.  However, the Midwest in fall isn’t the birdiest time and place of the year.  There is a reason that birders love “north with the spring” trips.  Now that I’ve driven 3,760 miles and proven to myself that I like road trips, my next big trip just may be “north with the spring.”

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View from The Bund on the overcast day we were there.

View from The Bund on the overcast day we were there.

“There are some birders,” said my son, Dave, as we walked along The Bund, a famous waterfront area in central Shanghai.  Birding is unusual in China, so I could hardly believe it, but two men and a woman had binoculars and scopes fixed on gulls in the river.  We walked up to them and introduced ourselves.  Surprisingly, I was familiar with Craig Brelsford, an American birder living in Shanghai with his wife, Elaine Du, and their friend and fellow birder, Michael Grunwell, from the Facebook group Birding China.  We all marveled at the coincidence of meeting there and had a great time talking about China, birds, websites (a common interest of Craig and Dave), and travel.  Elaine was surprised that Dave has been to Baoshan, in the western province of Yunnan, and they compared notes on their trips there.

Dave - all dressed up and ready for the awards presentation, the reason that we were in Shanghai.

Dave – all dressed up and ready for the awards presentation, the reason that we were in Shanghai.

I had arrived in China a week earlier, on March 4, for my fourth trip to visit my oldest son who has lived in Shenzhen since January 2008.  We were in Shanghai for one of Dave’s occasional jobs as an awards presenter for an organization similar to Guinness World Records.  The Chinese take these awards very seriously and about 200 people attended the presentation.  Three awards were given that day, including one for the world’s largest enamel floor.

Images of fish and other oceanic creatures were scattered about the beautiful blue and gold enamel floor.

Images of fish and other oceanic creatures were scattered about the beautiful blue and gold enamel floor.

Dave was done with his responsibilities shortly after noon, so we spent the afternoon exploring The Bund.  Craig and Michael showed me a little group of Black-headed Gulls that I hadn’t picked up with my binoculars and we talked about the identity of the big white-headed gulls, which Michael was confident were Mongolian Gulls.

Probable Mongolian Gull on the Huangpu River.

Probable Mongolian Gull on the Huangpu River.

Dave and I had planned to go to Shanghai’s Century Park the next morning and Craig confirmed that our plan was a good one.  He said that I could expect to find Pale Thrush there and I was pleased that I did find one right away.  Life bird number one for this trip!  A short time later Dave pointed out a bird perched on a branch of a nearby tree.  When I started taking photographs, a young Chinese woman walked right over to where my camera was pointed and flushed the bird.  All I’d seen was a crest like a tit or bunting and yellow on the throat.  But that was enough to identify the bird as a Yellow-throated Bunting, another life bird.

The most interesting bird at Century Park was this Red-flanked Bluetail.  After working with a millipede for quite a while, he finally swallowed it whole.

Red-flanked Bluetail in Shanghai's Century Park.

Red-flanked Bluetail in Shanghai’s Century Park.

Dave and I did a little more sightseeing, had a nice dinner, and flew back to Shenzhen the next morning.

Dim sum for Dave, Amber, and me.

Dim sum for Dave, Amber, and me.

My previous trips included serious birding; this time I focused on spending time with Dave and my three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Amber.  A bonus was meeting Dave’s girlfriend, Rachel, and her family.

I had arrived on a Friday evening, just in time to join Rachel’s family for their traditional Saturday dim sum the next day.  The American equivalent of dim sum would be a family style meal consisting exclusively of shared appetizers. Dim sum originated in Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), just an hour from Shenzhen.  It just may be my favorite type of Chinese food; I love trying so many different dishes.  Food is an important part of Chinese culture and there is an abundance of it at every meal.

Making dumplings with Amber and Rachel's father.  It's harder than I expected.  Mine barely held together when they were cooked.

Making dumplings with Amber and Rachel’s father.  It’s harder than I expected.  Mine barely held together when they were cooked.

Shortly after we got back to Shenzhen, I spent a weekend with Amber and her mom, Trissie.  We went to Evergreen Resort, a place we had visited in 2014, but this time we stayed overnight.  The resort has lots of outside activities for kids, but it was hard to get Amber away from the hanging bridge.  She is absolutely fearless and walked back and forth on the bridge until dark.

Amber and Trissie crossing the hanging bridge at Evergreen Resort.

Amber and Trissie crossing the hanging bridge at Evergreen Resort.

After the weekend, I was back at Dave’s and we quickly settled into a routine similar to my last visit.  I usually went for a walk to nearby Shenzhen Central Park by myself each morning.  Dave, Amber, and I did something together in the afternoon, and then Rachel joined us for dinner.  Dave is the primary caregiver for his daughter and he works from home, so we had a lot of flexibility with our schedule.

Amber loves climbing trees.

Amber loves climbing trees.

The park was usually busy with people as the Chinese walk, talk, sit, dance, and generally enjoy their parks.  Between the people and obsessive cleaning up, I thought that I might not see many birds.  Still, I managed to see 30 species in Shenzhen Central Park.  I can recognize the songs or calls of only a handful of birds, so I couldn’t bird by ear like I do at home and had to actually see the birds.

Sweeping up fallen flowers in Shenzhen City Park. I have observed this "cleaning up" in all of Shenzhen's city parks.

Sweeping up fallen flowers in Shenzhen City Park. I have observed this “cleaning up” in all of Shenzhen’s city parks.

I was thrilled with Masked Laughingthrushes on my first visit to China.  I saw them again on my second visit.  By my third trip, I realized they were one of the most common birds in Guangdong Province.  Regardless, they are one of my favorites.

Masked Laughingthrush, a very common bird in Southern China.

Masked Laughingthrush, a very common bird in Southern China.

Asian Koels symbolize city birding in China for me.  I loved this proud, bold male singing from a treetop on the edge of the park with apartments in the background.

Asian Koels could be heard calling at nearly every park I visited in Shenzhen.

Asian Koels could be heard calling at nearly every park I visited in Shenzhen.

Unidentified damselfly.

Unidentified damselfly.

Dave and Rachel knew how much I loved going to parks, so they planned fun and interesting outings farther from home on the weekends.  Shenzhen may be the greenest city in China with its many gorgeous parks.  But in spite of much time spent outside, most Chinese seem rather removed from nature.  When we found this little damselfly, Rachel’s first reaction was “get it away from me!”  But, she saw my delight and was soon right there beside me getting as close as possible to get a photo with her iPhone.

Our most exciting nature find was these Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden.  We spent quite a bit of time admiring and photographing these mating moths.  We were on a narrow path and it wasn’t possible to pass us without seeing the objects of our attention.  These gorgeous creatures caught the interest of everyone who came by.

Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, perhaps the nature highlight of the trip.

Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, perhaps the nature highlight of the trip.

I was able to plan one day dedicated to birding.  Mike Kilburn, who had guided me for a day on my first trip in 2009, no longer works as a guide, but he generously invited me to join him for some birding in Hong Kong.  Since I had spent very little time in Hong Kong, Dave and I decided to go a day early and do some sightseeing.  We stayed in the area most tourists flock to, Tsim Sha Tsui in the central area of Kowloon.  We enjoyed walking the streets, Kowloon Park, and the Science Museum.

The next day Mike took us to Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong, which is less densely populated than the other Hong Kong islands and primarily consists of mountainous terrain.  First we went to Tai O, a three-centuries-old fishing village which is famous for its waterways, stilt houses, fishing boats and scenery.

Stilt houses at Tai O.

Stilt houses at Tai O.

This was where I got my third and last life bird of the trip, Gray-faced Buzzard, when five birds flew over.

Next, Mike took us to Pui O, a more agricultural area on Lantau Island, which has a resident population of water buffaloes.  Pui O is one of the few remaining areas where they still occur in Hong Kong.

Water Buffalo and Cattle Egret at Pui O.

Water Buffalo and Cattle Egret at Pui O.

I had my best look ever at Intermediate Egret here, which is just like its name suggests – an egret intermediate in size between Little Egret and Great Egret.

Intermediate Egret at Pui O.

Intermediate Egret at Pui O.

It was great to catch up with Mike and especially to hear about his new job as Senior Manager, Environment, Air Port Authority of Hong Kong.  I was impressed that the airport had such a position and knew that no one could be more effective in that role than Mike.  After an enjoyable day, it was all too soon to thank Mike and head back to Shenzhen.

The last few days were filled with family time and visits to the nearby Shenzhen Central Park.  I was fascinated by three White-shouldered Starlings that arrived at the park just before my trip ended.  I had seen them once before (during the Zoothera bird tour that was part of my 2012 trip), but I found these by myself.  That always makes birds special to me and I had time to really study these birds.

White-shouldered Starling. Many species of birds were attracted to these trees with huge flowers.

White-shouldered Starling. Many species of birds were attracted to these trees with huge flowers.

I was in China for nearly the entire month of March, but it went quickly.  After four trips, it now feels familiar and comfortable.  I miss Dave and Amber and the birds of China, but not the seven flights of stairs to Dave’s apartment.  I expect another trip is in my future, but for now it is good to be home and back to even more familiar and comfortable surroundings.  More photos can be found in my Flickr albums China 2016 – Birds & Butterflies and China 2016 – People  & Places.

Amber the explorer.

Amber the explorer.

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