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Archive for the ‘Travel for Birding’ Category

After our wonderful adventures in Panama, Diane and I wanted to do another birding trip this year. Another international trip was not possible, so we decided that the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November in Texas would be perfect. Diane would be able to see her first Green Jay and other amazing birds of South Texas. I would be sure to get photos of new species and maybe even a few lifers if I were lucky.

I drove to Texas in three days and got into Harlingen a full day before the festival began. I was greeted by thousands of Great-tailed Grackles on the power lines by the hotel. Although very common birds, the spectacle of the grackles and starlings loudly screeching and their intermittent murmurations as they flew and then resettled on the wires was exhilarating.

Gadwall is a common duck that I've seen many times, but never so close as at Estero Llano Grande.

Gadwall is a common duck that I’ve seen many times, but never so close as at Estero Llano Grande.

I started my first full day in South Texas at Estero Llano Grande State Park, which turned out to be one of my favorite locations in the valley. The pond in front of the Visitor Center draws many species of ducks, all very close. But, this park may be best known as an almost guaranteed place to see Common Pauraque. Park rangers share the daytime roosting locations with visitors; otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to find this bird nestled in the leaves.

Common Pauraque are nocturnal birds that roost in leaves and brush piles during the day. Their highly effective camouflage makes them difficult to find.

Common Pauraque are nocturnal birds that roost in leaves and brush piles during the day. Their highly effective camouflage makes them difficult to find.

It was a wonderful morning with Green Kingfishers, White-tailed Kites, and many more. But, it was hot! By noon, I was about to drop from the heat. I met another birder who was also interested in looking for Mountain Plovers, seen in the past just north of Harlingen. We joined forces and spent the afternoon in his air-conditioned car searching the fallow farm fields without success, but we did see raptors and other birds including a gorgeous Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Diane arrived on Tuesday evening and we went to bed early for our 4:15 AM wake-up on Wednesday.  Our first festival field trip was to Las Estrellas Preserve, a 415-acre Nature Conservancy property that was purchased to protect the federally endangered star cactus, a spineless succulent with yellow flowers which is known to grow only in Starr County, Texas, and a few places in Mexico. Because the cactus is vulnerable to poachers, the property is not open to the public.

Star cactus shrinks to the ground when stressed. It was not in bloom when we visited and it was difficult to find.

Star cactus shrinks to the ground when stressed. It was not in bloom when we visited and it was difficult to find.

Next it was on Rancho Lomitas for lunch and a visit with Benito Trevino, owner of the ranch and the leading ethnobotanist in South Texas. We were all fascinated by Benito’s knowledge of the history and uses of native plants.  Plants were the focus of this locale, but we had hoped to also see Audubon’s Oriole here.  Our guide did catch a glimpse of one, but the rest of us missed it. However, we were very happy with good looks at Scaled Quail, a Greater Roadrunner, many other birds, and Benito’s fascinating stories about plants.

A Greater Roadrunner played hide and seek in the courtyard, mostly hiding in the vegetation. Here he dashes across an open area.

A Greater Roadrunner played hide and seek in the courtyard, mostly hiding in the vegetation. Here he dashes across an open area.

 

Cochineal, an insect, growing on prickly pear cactus. We learned how the Indians used cochineal to make red dye.

Cochineal, an insect, growing on prickly pear cactus. We learned how the Indians used cochineal to make red dye.

For day two of the festival, Diane and I had chosen the Upper Rio Grande trip with visits to Roma Bluffs, Chapeño, and Salineño. There are famous feeders at Salineño, where we hoped for another chance to see Audubon’s Oriole, but we missed it again.  It was fun to meet Noah Strycker (one of our guides for the day) and we loved sitting at the Salineño feeders watching the Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays, Orange-crowned Warblers, and all the other birds that come for suet, seed, and nectar.

A gorgeous male Altamira Oriole at Salineño.

A gorgeous male Altamira Oriole at Salineño.

We got back to Harlingen in time for our late afternoon Parrot Trip. We could have found the parrots by ourselves, but quickly decided that this was $40 well-spent just for the fun of being driven around town madly searching for parrots. We were in one of three vans, all communicating by walkie-talkie. It was an efficient and fun way to quickly find the target birds. First, we saw Green Parakeets, which I had seen on my trip in April 2011. And, then one of the vans found the Red-crowned Parrots.  Finally – my first life bird at the festival.  Nothing is more fun than watching parrots with their loud, affectionate, and comical behavior.

Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen. We learned that they not only mate for life; pairs are together constantly and can even be distinguished in a flock by their close proximity to each other even in flight.

Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen. We learned that they not only mate for life; pairs are together constantly and can even be distinguished in a flock by their close proximity to each other even in flight.

The third festival day, Diane and I did different trips. I opted for Southmost Preserve, another Nature Conservancy property not normally open to the public. Both Tropical and Couch’s Kingbird are common in the valley, but they are nearly impossible to differentiate unless heard vocalizing. On this trip, we had several individuals of both species.  And, we heard one Couch’s Kingbird not just calling, but singing his full song. It was also interesting to see the kingbirds catching and eating Monarch butterflies.

Couch's Kingbird with a Monarch butterfly at Southmost Preserve.

Couch’s Kingbird with a Monarch butterfly at Southmost Preserve.

It was a great morning with many species ranging from ever-popular White-tailed Kites to a rather rare Warbling Vireo.

Friday evening was a festival highlight – Noah Strycker’s keynote address about his Global Big Year.  Off-stage, Noah is a very nice person, quiet and unassuming.  On-stage, he morphs into an animated and dynamic speaker.  The audience was totally awed by his fascinating stories.  Noah impressed me, not just with his spirit of adventure, physical fortitude, and calmness in challenging situations, but also with his kindness, humility and obvious love for the birds and people of the entire planet.

We listened to a lot of Great-tailed Grackles with Nathan Pieplow.

We listened to a lot of Great-tailed Grackles with Nathan Pieplow.

On Saturday, Diane and I did different trips again. She choose the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge tour which included parts of the refuge not normally open to the public, where they saw a much sought-after Texas bird, Aplomado Falcon. I choose Nathan Pieplow’s “Bird Sounds Decoded” field workshop. We had a small group and it was really fun to get an introduction to Nathan’s method of identifying birds by ear, a method that does not require memorization. I bought Nathan’s book and can’t wait to study it and improve my ear birding skills.

Our leaders were always alert to interesting flora and fauna.  On this morning, Nathan discovered a Red-bordered Pixie, a beautiful butterfly never found north of the Rio Grande Valley.

A Red-bordered Pixie at The Inn at Chachalaca Bend.

A Red-bordered Pixie at The Inn at Chachalaca Bend.

It seems that a rare bird shows up in South Texas during the festival every year. This year, a couple of Tamaulipas Crow were discovered at South Padre Island a day or so before the festival started. These birds were formerly reliably found at the Brownsville Landfill, but none had been seen anywhere in Texas since 2010. A couple of days after the first sighting, the birds were at the Brownsville dump again and birders were flocking there to add Tamaulipas Crow to their life lists. I was no different. I hitched a ride with Nathan after his workshop and we had great looks at the crow. Life bird #2 for the trip!

We observed three Tamaulipas Crows at the Brownsville Landfill.

We observed three Tamaulipas Crows at the Brownsville Landfill.

Sunday, November 12, was the last day of the festival and Diane and I were scheduled for what we expected to be the most exciting field trip of the week – King Ranch. The target bird was Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, which was almost guaranteed to be seen.  It had never been missed during previous festivals. But, this year was different. The temperature had fallen quickly and dramatically to 20 or more degrees lower than normal. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is a tropical owl, just reaching its northern most range in South Texas. It had not been seen all week, presumably due to the cold weather. On Sunday, it had warmed up again, almost to normal, so we were hopeful. But, it was not to be. One of the King Ranch guides heard one in the distance, but none of the festival participants heard or saw the little owl.

We saw many great birds at the King Ranch Norias Division, including Harris's Hawk.

We saw many great birds at the King Ranch Norias Division, including Harris’s Hawk.

We were also told that we would have another chance to see Audubon’s Oriole at King Ranch, but we missed it, too.  Missing the owl and oriole were big disappointments, but there was one consolation. Near the end of the morning, we were looking for Sprague’s Pipits when a guide screamed “Zone-tailed Hawk!” It was not the close look that I wanted, but I did see the bird and even got a poor photo showing the “zone” tail. Life bird #3 of the trip.

Diane and I had scheduled three days to bird on our own after the festival and we knew the first place that we would head on Monday morning – the feeding station at Salineño.

A Long-billed Thrasher enjoying suet at the Salineño feeding area.

A Long-billed Thrasher enjoying suet at the Salineño feeding area.

The Audubon’s Orioles had been seen just before our arrival.  We sat there for three hours waiting for them to return, but we enjoyed the other avian activity at the feeders. Finally, my most-wanted bird showed up – first a male Audubon’s Oriole and then his mate, both close enough to get great looks and photographs. Life bird #4 and I was thrilled.

Male Audubon's Oriole at Salineño.

Male Audubon’s Oriole at Salineño.

We stopped at Estero Llano Grande on our way back to Harlingen. We didn’t have much time, but wanted to get a look at a Common Pauraque for Diane. The park was magical, so much cooler than when I had been there a week earlier and we almost had the park to ourselves. We found the Pauraque right away, and the nearby Eastern Screech-Owl, who seemed to sit looking out of its nest box all day every day.

“McCall’s” Eastern Screech-Owl ranges from south-central Texas to parts of northern Mexico. It may prove to be a separate species, as it is always gray and never gives the “whinny” call.

“McCall’s” Eastern Screech-Owl ranges from south-central Texas to parts of northern Mexico. It may prove to be a separate species, as it is always gray and never gives the “whinny” call.

As we left that area and walked by a pond, Diane heard what she was sure was a kingfisher. She tracked down this beautiful female Green Kingfisher in the ditch across the path from the pond. We had both seen this species before, most recently in Panama, but it was a treat to be so close and see it so clearly.

Female Green Kingfisher at Estero Llano Grande.

Female Green Kingfisher at Estero Llano Grande.

We spent much of our last two days looking for Aplomado Falcon, to no avail. We had both seen it previously, but we were hoping for a better look. We also went to Estero Llano Grande State Park one more time and again enjoyed the wonderful birds there.

White-tailed Kites at Estero Llano Grande.

White-tailed Kites at Estero Llano Grande.

As usual, our time was up too quickly. Diane flew home and I started the drive back to North Carolina, stopping the first night at the home of a new friend we met at the festival. Birders have to be the friendliest people on earth and making new friends is as good as seeing new birds.  It was a wonderful trip and I can’t wait to go back again.

More photos from this trip can be viewed in my Flickr album, RGV Texas – Nov 2017.

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Huge liquid black eyes encircled by thick red rings. Light-tipped black bill with perfect white spots at the base. Dark chocolate brown hood. Red legs and lovely black-tipped wings. And, the tail – the gorgeous white u-shaped tail. The Swallow-tailed Gull is widely considered to be the most beautiful gull on earth. Never in a million years would I have expected to see this bird on my trip to Washington, but let me start at the beginning.

Those big beautiful eyes facilitate hunting at night. Swallow-tailed Gulls are the only nocturnal gulls in the world.

Those big beautiful eyes facilitate hunting at night. Swallow-tailed Gulls are the only nocturnal gulls in the world.

My friends Phil and Mary Dickinson moved across the country from North Carolina to Washington in December 2015.  I expected very few life birds in Washington, but I wanted to visit my friends and I thought that it would be fun to see the Pacific Northwest and a new state.  Phil suggested that late August/early September would have nice weather, so I flew to Seattle on August 28.

On our first full day, Phil took me to Big Four Ice Caves where I got my first life bird of the trip, Black Swift. I also had an introduction to the beautiful Washington landscape.

The beautiful but dangerous ice caves. Phil and I heeded the warnings to stay on the trail, but many did not. There have been four deaths here since 1998.

The beautiful but dangerous ice caves. Phil and I heeded the warnings to stay on the trail, but many did not. There have been four deaths there since 1998.

 

Fireweed at Big Four is beautiful even when past its prime.

Fireweed at Big Four is beautiful even when past its prime.

The next day, Phil, Mary, and I drove to Mount Rainier National Park.  We took our time with a stop for a picnic lunch and walk at Federation Forest State Park.  We arrived at Crystal Mountain Resort mid-afternoon and had a nice dinner after acquainting ourselves with the Sunrise area of the park where we would be spending our time.

A Clark's Nutcracker greeted us in the Sunrise Visitor's Center parking lot.

A Clark’s Nutcracker greeted us in the Sunrise Visitor’s Center parking lot.

The following morning, Phil met some birders from home in the parking lot just before we started our hike.  They mentioned that a Swallow-tailed Gull had been found early that morning in north Seattle.  I received a text from a friend in North Carolina also notifying us of the gull.  What?  A Swallow-tailed Gull is a pelagic bird of the southern hemisphere that comes to land only to nest, mainly on the Galapagos Islands.  Other times of the year, it cruises the off-shore waters of South America’s Pacific coast from Colombia to Chile.  A Swallow-tailed Gull has been seen in North America only twice before, and in California, not nearly so far north.  This was a mega-rarity!  Some crazed birders would have abandoned plans for Mt. Rainier and sacrificed the advance payments we had made for our rooms that night to chase this bird.  We didn’t consider that option and hoped that the bird would stick around until we got back home.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk posed near the Sunrise Visitor's Center.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk posed near the Sunrise Visitor’s Center.

One of our target birds on the Mount Freemont Lookout Trail was Prairie Falcon, which had been seen there the previous day.  The three of us walked the first mile and a half of the trail, which was labeled “moderate,” before Mary turned back.  Phil and I continued on the “strenuous” trail for another 1.3 miles and I soon became scared.  Parts of the trail were just a narrow scree path with an abrupt steep drop-off for hundreds of feet down the side of the mountain.  Phil was kind, patient and encouraging as I slowly conquered my fears and made my way.  Finally, we reached the lookout where we found raptors in the distance, but they turned out to be Red-tailed Hawks.  However, Mountain Goats, a Pika, and a feeling of accomplishment rewarded our efforts.

Phil and I conquered Mt. Fremont.

Phil and I conquered Mt. Fremont.

On Friday morning, Phil and I went out to look for birds before breakfast.  We drove to the campground and kept a sharp eye out for grouse on the side of the road, but we did not see any.  We decided to check the trail at Sunrise Point, where we were rewarded with a Red-breasted Nuthatch loudly calling as soon as we opened the car doors.  We started down the trail and had not gone more than a few yards when Phil said, “Shelley, there’s your grouse.”  And, there is was on the side of the trail walking towards us.  A Sooty Grouse – life bird #2 for the trip!  We continued to watch the grouse, an adult male, for 10 minutes as he kept an eye on us, but foraged very close by.  Finally, we decided that it was time to go have breakfast with Mary.

This male Sage Grouse was waiting for us at Sunrise Point.

This male Sage Grouse was waiting for us at Sunrise Point.

But, our wonderful, birdy morning was not quite over yet.  About a mile from Sunrise Point, Phil spied a woodpecker flying across the road and quickly stopped the car.  And, then we saw a second bird and quickly realized that it was a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers, a species that each of us had only seen once before.

The yellow crown on this American Three-toed Woodpecker isn't visible in this photo, but you can clearly see that he has only three toes. Except for the Three-toed and Black-backed, all North American woodpeckers have four toes.

The yellow crown on this American Three-toed Woodpecker isn’t visible in this photo, but you can clearly see that he has only three toes. Except for the Three-toed and Black-backed, all North American woodpeckers have four toes.

The three of us had a good breakfast and then started the drive home.  We had been watching the local birding listserv, Tweeters, and the Western Washington Birders Facebook group for updates on the Swallow-tailed Gull, but as of mid-afternoon, it had not been re-sighted.  We started to think that it might be a “one day wonder.”  Finally, in the late afternoon, it was found a few miles north of the original location.  Reports said that this new location was very difficult to access and required a dangerous and possibly illegal trek across active railroad tracks to get a good look.  We hoped that the bird would stay a third day.

Western Sandpipers foraged at the Everett Sewage Lagoons, some in deeper water up to their bellies. Occasionally a bird would submerge its head completely under water.

Western Sandpipers foraged at the Everett Sewage Lagoons, some in deeper water up to their bellies. Occasionally a bird would submerge its head completely under water.

On Saturday morning, Phil and I went birding in his home county.  Again, we watched for news of the gull and were ready for the chase if it was found.  We mostly birded coastal areas with a foray to the sewage treatment plant in the middle of the day.  After a quick drive-thru at Burger King for a very late lunch, we drove to the Everett marina on the Puget Sound, mainly because we didn’t have time to go anywhere else.  I had wanted to get good looks at California Gulls, which are common there.  They were there as expected, but one gull was different.  We both felt absolute disbelief as we realized that we had found the Swallow-tailed Gull.

The gull showed off its swallowtail while preening.

The gull showed off its swallowtail while preening.

Phil got the word out that we had found the gull and 10 minutes later other birders started arriving.  We continued to watch the gull in close waters, happy with our good views, when the impossible happened.  The Swallow-tailed Gull flew right in front of us on the two-foot wide strip of dirt between the parking lot and the water, no more than 20 feet away.  We had incredible looks at the bird at it stretched its wings and picked at pebbles.  After a few minutes, a truck drove by and the gulls flew back into the water.

Courtship includes the male offering the female pebbles for the nest. Hmm. Does this beauty want to make more Swallow-tailed Gulls?

Courtship includes the male offering the female pebbles for the nest. Hmm. Does this beauty want to make more Swallow-tailed Gulls?

I then turned my attention to the small group of birders who had shared this amazing experience with us.  I heard someone say that a guy had flown in from Chicago.  I introduced myself and the man replied that his name was Amar Ayyash.  I don’t know of anyone in North American who knows gulls better or loves them more.  If I could have chosen any person in the world to share this experience with it would have been Amar.  This gull was a super star and it had also drawn Shawneen Finnegan and Dave Irons from Portland, Oregon.  Alex Sundvall had flown in from Minnesota.  I’m sure there were others from out of state, too, but it wasn’t possible to meet the 80 or so birders who were there when we left.  Others had already come and gone and more would arrive after we went home to celebrate with Mary.

A close-up of the amazing Swallow-tailed Gull in breeding plumage. Outside breeding season, the head is white and the eye ring is black.

A close-up of the amazing Swallow-tailed Gull in breeding plumage. Outside breeding season, the head is white and the eye ring is black.

As I write this, the Swallow-tailed Gull is still being seen in Edmonds, about 15 miles south of where Phil and I discovered it.  This is day 10.  Will it stay longer?  Perhaps.  Squid, the gull’s primary food, has been plentiful in the area.

An "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco cooled off on a hot day in the Dickinson bath while we relaxed on the deck.

An “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco cooled off on a hot day in the Dickinson bath while we relaxed on the deck.

Phil and I had some pleasant birding for the next two and a half days, but I did not get any additional life birds.  Regardless, it was fun to see some of his local birding locations and enjoy the birds in his backyard.  Spending time with friends, seeing spectacular landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and the thrill of finding a rare bird will keep memories of this trip sharp in my mind for a very long time.

Phil’s story, Beauty and a Surprise Highlight Washington Birding, is on the Forsyth Audubon blog.  For another fun story and amazing photos, see Amar’s post,  Swallow-tailed Gull Twitch, on his blog, Anything Larus.  More of my photos are on Flickr in the Swallow-tailed Gull album and Washington – 2017.

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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.  Danilo 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 Danilo 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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