Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Brown Thrasher

First, I’d like to thank the American Bird Conservancy for making an announcement about this big year project. I’d also like to thank those who have supported this project by pledging. If you haven’t already,see this page here. Any little bit helps!

I’ve been working all week. Luckily I work outside with birds. Today I was able to track down a Brown Thrasher that was singing on territory. I discovered there was a pair right near a Brown-headed Nuthatch nest. The thrashers have become a lot more apparent in the last week with many singing around the property.

Brown Thrasher in full song
There are still plenty of birds I could photograph around the Tall Timbers property. This weekend I plan to visit birding hotspots in Florida’s Panhandle including St. Marks, St. George and Bald Point. I hope to pick up a few more shorebirds and some of the more common species I have yet to photograph. Next weekend might be a trip to Miami to look for exotics and S. Florida specialties. There is still plenty to see and photograph before more migrants start coming through, so keep checking back!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Recent Happenings at Tall Timbers

Made it into the field today after yesterdays torrential downpour and only managed to get the ATV stuck once. The birds seemed to be enjoying the early morning sun. My first good find of the day came as I entered my research plot. I immediately heard Pine Siskins calling. They were moving around and quite flighty, but I managed to count 5 as they moved about. They were too quick for my camera that was safely tucked away in my backpack.

I got the camera out as it seemed like at any moment a Swallow-tailed Kite would come soaring overhead. It never happened, but it was a good thing the camera was out as I stumbled on a Fox Sparrow. This is a pretty good find and was a nice year/photo bird. Amazingly, my friend and co-worker Matt Gould had another Fox Sparrow at a totally different part of the property.

Fox Sparrow
It feels like Tall Timbers has some potential to produce some more surprises (as I hear it has in the past). If these any of these birds become reliable, I'll keep people posted, although these seemed like chance encounters.

If you are enjoying the pictures and this blog, consider pledging for the American Bird Conservancy's work with endangered birds in Hawaii. Every bit helps!

Monday, February 25, 2013

One of the Classics

First, apologies for the lack of posts recently. I just spent from 2/21-2/24 in Minnesota visiting the University of Minnesota for graduate school "welcome weekend". Before being invited to this event, I had no hopes of seeing a Boreal Owl this year, especially since the major push seems to be over, although a few individuals are still being seen. Even after being invited, I had no idea if I would even have time for the 3 hour one-way drive from Minneapolis to Duluth/Two Harbors.

As luck would have it, no activities were planned for Sunday and my plane didn't leave Minneapolis until 5:30pm. This was my one window of opportunity. Boreal Owls weren't reported from a couple days previous, but then on Saturday a report of a roosting bird along Tischer Creek sparked my hope again. I wasn't going to make the drive unless one was seen on Saturday...this was my sign. I had a rental car lined up but Tom Will, an associate with UMN who I talked to during the "interview" process of my school visit, wanted to go as well. He picked me up at 6am and we headed north.

We got to the Tischer Creek spot where the Boreal Owl was seen a day before but there was no owl to be found. We did, however, see an unexpected J.D. Phillips from Marquette, Michigan where I went to school. Fun to bird with him again! Another girl (Lizzie- sorry I don't know your last name!) was looking for the owl as well and we exchanged numbers should one of us get lucky with an owl. While on the trail, a report came of a Boreal Owl roosting in a yard 30mins from our location. We bolted over, the first on the scene, only to find a striking Northern Saw-whet Owl being harassed by feeder birds at the home.

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Although Saw-whets are awesome birds, and a great addition to this photographic big year, I couldn't help but feel a bit let down. So we headed back to Duluth to drive the lakeshore in search of Boreals, Great Grays and a King Eider that had been reported. We struck out on all. Later I would learn that Great Grays and the King Eider were indeed seen on Sunday. We ended in Two Harbors, checking a few of the open water sites with no sightings to brag about. We were on our way out, on the edge of town, when I got a text of a Boreal Owl in Two Harbors, not a block from where we had birded just moments earlier! We turned around and minutes later I was staring face to face with my #1 "holy-grail" bird of the ABA, Boreal Owl!

Boreal Owl!!!
Boreal Owl!!
But who did the text come from? It was from the girl, Lizzie, I ran into at Tischer Creek. Had we not run into each other, and had we not exchanged numbers, I would have never seen the bird. The Boreal was found by Jim Lind. I'm extremely thankful to Jim, Lizzie and Tom for getting me to Two Harbors and for finding and communicating the location of the Boreal Owl. After spending a little too long enjoying the bird, we had to speed back to the Minneapolis Airport where I just made my plane back to Tallahassee. This was one birding experience I will never forget, one of the classics!

Monday, February 18, 2013

STA-5 and Clewiston

I used this past weekend to see the newest addition to the ABA Checklist, the Purple Swamphen, and to enjoy some birding in southern Florida. Instead of battling traffic down from Tallahassee on Friday night and paying an outrageous $25-30 camping fee just to lay out a tent, I woke just after midnight on Saturday and left shortly after. I got to Clewiston just after sunrise and made my way down to STA-5 (Storm Treatment Area), only open to birders during specialized tours. It was open for the GBBC this weekend. On the road leading in, the number of Crested Caracaras seen was impressive.

Crested Caracara
Once I got to STA-5, I opted to go in solo so I could take my time and not be restricted to a schedule. This gave me more flexibility for photography. This area is a hot-spot for Purple Swamphens and they are not hard to find. It took all of 10 minutes to find one and at least 15-20 more were seen throughout my stay.

Purple Swamphen
I had a couple other big targets in mind; Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Snail Kite. The ducks were abundant and cooperative, found in multiple locations.

Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Snail Kite, on the other hand, was more elusive. I spied an adult flying waaaaaaaaaaay far out, only visible with a scope and in no way photographable. But, as luck would have it, I found another adult later that day. This one was actively attacking a small branch to be used as nesting material. It still wasn't close, and I am in no way proud of this picture, but I'm not sure if I'll see another one of these birds this year, so this will have to do for now.

Snail Kite
Even more impressive than the above birds, in my opinion, was the flycatcher selection! I didn't have high hopes of finding all the recently seen flycatchers but fortunately they made themselves very apparent. My first was the continuing Tropical Kingbird. I heard the bird call twice before it flew in. Tropical and Couch's can be difficult to identify in the field without hearing them call. I don't have extensive field experience with this duo, but I have seen them both on several occasions. The bill on this Tropical Kingbird is gigantic, as seen in the photo below, and out of the range of Couch's (I think). If anyone has a problem with this, I could be persuaded otherwise.

Tropical Kingbird
I then drove to the Cassin's Kingbird spot and easily found the bird flycatching from a wire. Upon getting out of my car, another kingbird joined it, this time a Gray!

Cassin's Kingbird
Gray Kingbird
The Cassin's was vocal, giving it's classic "Chi-Vrrr" call on several occasions. It was about this time I decided to head out of the treatment area and look for the Scissor-taileds and Western Kingbird present on Co. Rd. 835. Finding the Scissor-tailed was easy, I just had to find the birders. The extremely long-tailed Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was as cooperative as I could have wanted. I never get sick of this bird!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
No sign of the Western Kingbird, so I decided to turn around and head toward Clewiston. This proved to be a good plan. Shortly after turning around, there sat a Western Kingbird!

Western Kingbird
I couldn't believe the luck I was having. I followed up on a recent report of Bronzed Cowbirds from the Hoover Dike levee in Clewiston. I couldn't even park my car before finding 4 of them feeding in the grass. I followed them around and later found at least 4 others.

Bronzed Cowbird
I tried to find a place to camp, but most were full, so I drove back north to Gainesville and crashed with Craig. On Sunday morning we birded the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve. This place hosts an abundance of Sedge Wrens and I really wanted to find one of them. It wasn't long before one was seen right along the trail. I do like this wren.

Sedge Wren
All in all it was a very successful, fun, bird-filled weekend. Reports are coming in of Swallow-tailed Kites returning to Florida, and more migrants should be on their way! More pictures from this weekend can be found on the flickr site. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sound Clips

One problem with the photographic big year is that many species look very similar and may not be identifiable by photo or range alone. Many times, hearing the bird is very helpful for field identifications. On 1/29/2013, while birding Lucky Hammock in Florida, we heard, and then saw, the Brown-crested Flycatcher that has been around most of the winter. While I took a reasonable photograph, Great-crested Flycatchers have been reported from the area as well. Instead of relying on some subtle field marks seen in the photo below, I have uploaded a sound file of the classic "whip" call of the Brown-crested Flycatcher that was calling while I photographed it. Turn your sound wayyyyyyy up, the file is quiet.

Brown-crested Flycatcher

I also photographed a Least Flycatcher at Paynes Prairie Preserve in Gainesville. Empidonax are notoriously tough identifications without a call or song. Luckily, this bird was giving the "pit" call typical of Least Flycatcher, and the accompanying field marks add up. Any other empid would be very rare here.

Least Flycatcher

I hope this works, as I plan to use this technique to nail down other tricky field identifications such as Fish Crow and other empidonax flycatchers, among others.

Tall Timbers and a Weekend Voyage

I've been working at Tall Timbers Research Station for almost two weeks and am loving it! The birds are great, weather has been alright, and the people are nice. But lets get right down to it: the birds. A couple of my favorite pictures this year have been taken on the property while out working. Both Grasshopper and Henslow's Sparrows winter here. Henslow's has always been notoriously hard for me to get even a decent look at, nevermind a photograph. I found these birds can be quite tame on their wintering grounds if you approach with care. Grasshoppers seem to pop out into the open while Henslow's will mouse around the understory vegetation. I really enjoyed watching a Henslow's feed right by my feet, at times too close for the camera to focus!

Henslow's Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

What kind of work am I doing at Tall Timbers you ask? I'm nest searching for and banding Brown-headed Nuthatches. They are already excavating cavities in snags to be used as nests and are actively guarding them from Bluebirds and other cavity nesters.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
I'll walk you through some of the other commonly seen birds on Tall Timbers property. Red-headed Woodpeckers are downright abundant. Who could ever get sick of this flashy woodpecker?

Red-headed Woodpecker

Orange-crowned Warblers winter here and are seen daily.

Orange-crowned Warbler

It seems like you can't stop anywhere on our nuthatch plots without hearing an Eastern Towhee. They are thick in these woods and aren't too shy!

Eastern Towhee

On my first weekend (Feb 9 & 10), I picked up my friend Craig Bateman in Gainesville and drove to the South Skyway Fishing Pier where the Black-legged Kittiwakes had been seen. We didn't really know where to go, ended up walking around aimlessly for a bit, walked under a bridge and bumped into a feeding Razorbill!


We figured out where the actual fishing pier was, and on our way back to our car we saw some birders fixed on a floating gull. There sat a dying Black-legged Kittiwake. It appeared as though it would only last a few more hours, and that stretching it. No one saw it the next day.

Black-legged Kittiwake... not looking so well

We spent the night at Craig's place in Gainesville and birded Paynes Prairie Preserve in the morning. It was pretty quiet, but we found an obliging Ash-throated Flycatcher. Myiarchus flycatchers can be difficult to identify, but this one fits the profile of Ash-throated nicely. Smallish bill, drab underparts, rufous tail... and it was calling.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

There are some other, poor quality photos of common birds in the flickr gallery, so if you are bored feel free to check it out. I have a few more pictures that will be accompanied by an iPhone voice recording (Least Flycatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher) if I can figure out how to upload them here. I have pictures of Fish Crow but my voice recording seems to have been deleted, so I'll work on getting another picture and recording soon.

I'm heading down to STA-5 near Clewiston, FL tomorrow (2/15) after work. The gates open at 830am on Saturday. The seven hour one-way trip is going to be rough, but the birding will make up for it. Purple Swamphen, here I come!

 I'll also take this time to remind you of the pledge page here. The birds of Hawaii would really appreciate it!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The End of the Trip

The last two days of our epic Florida trip (2/1 and 2/2) were used to add to the year list and nail down some lifers. On 2/1 we birded around Fort De Soto. A Great Horned Owl has built a nest low in a pine and was a crowd pleaser.

Great Horned Owl

We had a nice selection of shorebirds but most were far out due to tide conditions. Still, we managed to find a Marbled Godwit and a couple American Oystercatchers. They were too far for photographs, although I have a few Oystercatcher photos on my phone I may upload later.

On our way out of the park, we scored some Nanday Parakeets, recent additions to the ABA checklist. The picture isn’t great as they were along a busy road and stopping for more than a few minutes could have been detrimental.

Nanday Parakeet

We drove over to Edward Medard Park where Snail Kites recently bred. No Snail Kites could be found, but near the parking area we had Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireo.
Blue-headed Vireo
White-eyed Vireo
Our final stop before heading toward Tallahassee was near Hernando Beach. This spot contains most of, if not all of the remaining “countable” Budgerigar population. I fully realize this species may soon be subtracted from the ABA List, but we were close enough that it would be silly not to try. We found 8 birds sitting communally in a homeowners front yard.


On 2/2 we birded St. Marks NWR hoping for more ducks and perhaps a Snow Goose. It was here we had our first Carolina Chickadees of the trip. They were singing away, a much different song than Black-capped. Also, the Black-capped Chickadee range doesn’t extend at all into Florida, to help avoid confusion.

Carolina Chickadee

Northern Harriers were busy hunting the marshes. This one landed and made some harsh calls, frightening the poor coots nearby.
Northern Harrier

There were large blackbird flocks around the refuge, but we failed to find any Rusty Blackbirds that had been reported. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing, though.
Red-winged Blackbird

We found a loaded duck flock containing a few new species for the trip. American Wigeon, Canvasback and Northern Shoveler all winter at the refuge.
American Wigeon and Northern Shoveler (with Redhead)


It was time to drop my dad off at the Tallahassee Airport, thus ending another epic adventure. While I didn’t have to move in for a while yet, I ventured over to a private residence allowing birders to view their female Broad-billed Hummingbird. Not too long after I arrived, the bird made an appearance.
Broad-billed Hummingbird

After such a long, successful birding trip with my dad (170+ species!), it was nice to move into my new home at Tall Timbers Research Station and relax. I’ll soon be caught up with all my birding photos from this year. There is still so much to post about! Keep checking back.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ding Darling, Sanibel and Beyond

On 1/31/2013 morning we birded at Sanibel and Ding Darling NWR. We started at the lighthouse in Sanibel and quickly found 3 Razorbill! I took a possibly, maybe, barely identifiable photo of one that I was going to post. Fortunately, yesterday Craig Bateman and I found a/the Skyway Fishing Pier Razorbill that I got much better photos of, but more on that later.

We worked down the beach and found many terns, gulls and skimmers loafing on the beach. Black Skimmers are awesome!

Black Skimmer

Ding Darling was full of wading birds. Immediately after paying our entrance fee, we noticed this Yellow-crowned Night-Heron attracting a crowd.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

A little further up, a few birds were sitting or fishing in some shallow water near a culvert. Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret and American White Pelicans were in wonderful light.

Roseate Spoonbill
Reddish Egret
American White Pelican

Along the drive, Common Ground-Doves were scattered about. In my experience, these are quite a skittish dove. Using the car as a blind, I was able to get a useable photograph.

Common Ground-Dove

After completing the wildlife drive, we headed to Cape Coral. We followed up on a recent report of Burrowing Owls at the Pelican Blvd. Baseball Fields. Sure enough, a few Burrowing Owl mounds were roped off. Most must have been sleeping since they were not very obvious. Only one owl was poking his head up from underground.

Burrowing Owl

Florida Scrub-Jay was another target. We checked a few spots; Shamrock Park and Caspersen Beach just south of Venice with no luck. We finally moved to Oscar Scherer State Park, a well-known spot for the Jays. With a tip from another birder, we found a couple of friendly Jays who were curious to our presence.

Florida Scrub-Jay

We had a bit of time to check a few beaches further north, but we found nothing too exciting. We called it a night and prepared for our next day of birding. My next post will include photos and commentary from Fort De Soto, St. Petersburg, and Hernando Beach!

I’m almost caught up with postings from our birding trip down here. I have a ton of pictures from birding around Tall Timbers and my first weekend off. Hopefully I’ll be all caught up soon!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The West Side of Florida

On 1/30, we woke up in Homestead. Our goal was to make it to the west side of the state, birding the Tamiami Trail on the way, and hitting some beaches once we got there. But not without driving around Homestead to find a  Common Myna. It took all of 5 minutes to find a line of birds strung up on a wire preening in a Starling like fashion.

Common Myna

We started birding our way west along the Tamiami Trail. Last year, I photographed a very cooperative Purple Gallinule at the "Everglades Safari Park", so we stopped here to see if the bird might still be around. Sure enough, we found the bird foraging on the lawn with White Ibis and Boat-tailed Grackles. Too easy. It was too tame and I had to back away to fit the bird in my 300mm lens!

Purple Gallinule

We eventually made it to the west coast of Florida, managing to miss Short-tailed Hawk in areas where they have recently been seen. A real tragedy. Our first stop on the gulf side was Tigertail Beach on Marco Island. The beach was full of shorebirds including hoards of Dunlin, Western Sandpipers, Plovers, Dowitchers and Knots. A few other birders were enjoying the birds as well, until a little boy decided it was a good idea to run at the flocks and scare them off the beach; his mom watching the whole thing. At least I got my shots off before this event took place. Mind you these aren't great shots as the sun was high overhead, but not much I could do about that.

Wilson's Plover

A banded Red Knot

Black-bellied Plover (better pics to come)

We moved north to Fort Myers beach. Thus far we missed Snowy Plover at every stop. Again, we failed to find one here. We did have a few roosting gulls and terns on the beach, and here is where I got some good Sandwich and Royal Tern photos.

Sandwich Tern

Royal Tern

More pictures from the Everglades that I didn't get around to editing earlier, and more shorebird pictures can be found on the flickr website. The next post will include photos from Sanibel, Ding Darling NWR and a few other spots. Many more photos to come! And please check out the donate page, if you haven't already, to find out how you can help bird conservation! Big thanks to all those who have already shown their support!