Sunday, December 28, 2014

'Boro CBC

   My second Christmas Bird Count of winter 2014-2015 took place yesterday (12-27-14), and it was very productive. I did not get any FOYs; however, I still had a fun time birding locally in Murfreesboro, TN.
   Terry Witt, Joseph Hall, my brother Nolan, and I started off well with over thirty Rusty Blackbirds, two of which were simply minding their own business in a family's front lawn. Woodland birds were lively from morning until about noon when the wind increased in strength. A wonderful surprise was twenty-three Pine Siskins noisily chattering and bathing with just a few American Goldfinches.
   Our area consisted of little habitat for waterfowl, especially for diving ducks, but today we picked up Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, and an unexpected Northern Pintail, which was my first for the county. We also saw three Pied-billed Grebes. 

Northern Pintail (front) among Mallards

    I never guessed that one day I'd be excited about visiting the landfill - until I began birding. So today I was thrilled when we pulled up to this:

The Middlepoint Landfill

   Those white dots are gulls - almost exclusively Ring-billed. Despite much thorough scanning, we did not find any gull species besides Ring-billed Gull and Herring Gull.

Ring-billed Gulls

    Before lunch, we looked at our checklist and noted several species that we still lacked but could possibly pick up. Among these were Eurasian Collared-Dove, Eastern Phoebe, Winter Wren, Brown Thrasher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Chipping Sparrow. We split up, Terry, Nolan, and I taking a walk along a trail beside several soccer fields. Our first and only Golden-crowned Kinglet of the day was found here. The three of us came back to the parking lot where Joe had remained and found several new species himself. These included our missing Winter Wren, plus a couple unexpected species: Sharp-shinned Hawk and Horned Lark. After a quick lunch, a steady shower began, so we decided to cut the trip short. On our way back to our original meeting spot, Terry spotted two Eurasian Collared-Doves on the wire. This was a nice way to wrap up a short outing.
    We ended with 70 species.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The First-Ever Big Sandy CBC!

     After going over one month without birding, I was excited to get back in the field. I spent the morning of December 13th leading a field trip at Old Hickory Lake in Nashville. The outing was decent, and for me the highlight was photographing the overly cooperative (and aggressive) gulls. I managed to photograph each age of Ring-billed Gulls and snapped a shot of the lone Herring Gull with them.

1st cycle Herring Gull among Ring-billed Gulls.
Basic Adult Ring-billed Gull
2nd cycle (left) with 1st cycle Ring-billed Gulls

    The next day (12-14-14), I helped out with the first ever Big Sandy Christmas Bird Count. It was Chris Sloan, my brother Nolan, and I, and our territory was based around part of Kentucky Lake at Paris Landing State Park in Henry County, TN, where the habitat consists of dense deciduous woodlands with scattered evergreens adjacent to the lake yet with little to no habitat for grassland birds. Still, this area can hold more than a few surprises.
     We started before sunrise to try for owls. We quickly picked up a distant, whinnying Eastern Screech-Owl then moved on. Our first scan of the lake was at Port Road where we waited for the loons to leave their roost in hopes of seeing a rarity among them. No rare loons were to be found, but we added our first bits of waterfowl, gulls, and passerines to the list. A few of these included Gadwall, Bufflehead, Bonaparte's Gull, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Hermit Thrush. One surprise here, though, were calling Snow Geese. We never saw them, but we could certainly hear that there were multiple birds. Continuing on...
    Waterfowl steadily became more identifiable as we checked different vantage points of the lake. Both scaups - Greater and Lesser - were nice additions to our checklist. My favorite duck of them all, the Common Goldeneye, was quite abundant throughout the day. The males are so stunning with their spotless, white feathers below and their bold, iridescent heads. A group of goldeneyes is certainly an unforgettable sight! The cute, little Buffleheads were high in numbers as well, and one particular bird was close enough for a decent photograph.

Female Bufflehead

    Since the Big Sandy area hosts a fair number of Herring Gulls in the winter, unusual gulls are often found here. Chris found a 3rd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull, which literally disappeared (apparently it had flown away without us knowing) as he was lowering his scope for us to take a look! Minutes later, he found a potential candidate for Thayer's Gull, but alas! The bird's eye was bright yellow - evidence against an adult Thayer's.
    Tennessee is among many states already having a large influx of northern birds (e.g. Red-breasted Nuthatch). Today we tallied several Pine Siskins, which is always a good bird for CBCs. Dark-eyed Juncos were notably plentiful in brushy areas, and their white outertail feathers flashed as they flew at the car's approach.
    One of the biggest surprises of the day were eight Great White-fronted Geese and a lone Ross's Goose at Eagle Creek. Incredibly, the latter two and the previously mentioned Snow Geese were our only geese of the day!
    Throughout the day gunshots sounded from all around the lake. When we came to the mouth of Little Eagle Creek, dozens of freshly killed American Coots were scattered around the mud flats. There were still thousands of living coots swimming and feeding in the area, oblivious to the dangers around them. And soon they fled as shots were fired again. More coots were shot, and unfortunately, one of only three Redheads of the day was also forced to surrender after being injured by a bullet and pursued by a Chocolate Lab. I still can't wrap my mind around how people can kill such beautiful birds! 

A fraction of the coot gathering. I wonder how they feel about the deaths of their own kind?

    After covering all of our territory within a matter of hours, we decided to check the same spots again. We added Eastern Phoebe and American Kestrel - both birds that wouldn't be a shock if missed. As we were leaving a dock by the name of Mansard Island, I looked in a dead tree. At first glance I called, "Accipiter!" Then I got a better look and exclaimed, "Actually that looks like a Merlin." We turned around, and there it was...a beautiful Merlin no more than 30 yards in the field. This was definitely a good bird for the count!


    The Merlin brought us the much needed energy to finish the rest of the day. We continued to re-scan our spots around the lake. Although we didn't add any new waterfowl, it was still fun watching the Common Loons, Horned Grebes, and diving ducks pop up and down in the water. 
    Soon it was time to wrap up our trip. We finished at a field with wonderful Short-eared Owl habitat, but struck out on this one. Still, we did hear a pair of Great Horned Owls hooting in the wooded hill yonder. It was also fun watching the sparrows, towhees, and cardinals dash into their shelters to sleep for the evening.
    We finished with a total of 76 species - not bad. It was an awesome day! CBCs are truly the best - so fun and exciting. Hopefully I'll be able to do a few more before the season ends. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birding to Us

    Birding...what is it to us as birders? To me, it's purely fun; and if I had to pick out my favorite parts of birding, it would be the challenges, the simple beauty of the birds, and the excitement.

    The Challenges: No doubt my very favorite birds are not the brightly-colored ones with an array of rainbow hues but rather those that are accompanied with a challenge. The challenges in birding (e.g. immature gull ID) outmatch even the most impossible puzzle apps or those TV game shows in both complexity and excitement. Yes, birding challenges certainly tend to be much more difficult. After all, iPhone apps don't fly away but immature gulls do, and there is never a sign or guideline hovering before our faces reading "It's a larus!" But isn't that partly what keeps it fun and interesting? I also believe that the similar (challenging) bird species, such as Band-rumped and Leach's Storm-Petrels, tend to make you look more closely at the birds, and as a result, you can appreciate their unique, individual beauty in a different way.

1st cycle Ring-billed Gull...dare I consider it one of the "easy" ones?

    The Beauty: This isn't just Painted Bunting or Resplendent Quetzal beauty; this is the beauty of the birds themselves. True, you really can't beat staring at the above bunting or quetzal, but look at a Downy Woodpecker. The bird is a male no more than three feet before you. You get to see the fine bristles surrounding his bill, every worn feather and fresh feather on his wings, and even your own reflection in his eyes. The bird's details - his splendid plumage design and even behavior - have their own beauty. Appreciating them for what they are...that's the beauty of it. And the experiences involved in the sighting can also add something.

    The Excitement: We've all had that moment when a lifer or a rarity is right before our eyes. We get the uncontrollable shakes (most notably when a camera is involved). "Oh man! It's a fill in the blank!"  Or something to that effect. I've also been fortunate to see others' reactions when they get a lifer. It brings back memories of the time the species was a new one for myself. Sharing the excitement of someone's lifer - now that's awesome!
    With rarities, whether it's a lifebird or not, the memories are incredibly cool. Individuals in a group can relate to that sighting, throwing in their perspectives. Much of the excitement in birding isn't personal experiences but rather as a group. 

    I doubt that anyone in this group will forget this particular warbler-bonanza in Cape May, New Jersey, especially the gentleman holding the 10-pound camera.

So how about you? Can you relate? What is birding to you?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cooper's Hawk vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk + Photo Quiz

    One of the most highlighted bird identification challenges is Cooper's Hawk versus Sharp-shinned Hawk. The two are similar in both shape and plumage, and there's even some size overlap. Separating these accipiters is much easier with birds sitting on a post or in a tree, but it's almost a whole different case with flying birds. I am still not at the point where I can safely ID either species in flight, so this post will cover identifying them when perched. At the end, I have a short Cooper's vs. Sharp-shin photo quiz for those who want to "put to practice" what they have learned.

Perched Adults
    Without a doubt, identifying Cooper's and Sharp-shin is simplest with perched adults. All you truly need is a good view of the bird's head. I always think of adult Cooper's Hawks as having dark contrasting "caps", while adult Sharp-shinned Hawks have a uniform gray "hood." In other words, Cooper's has a dark, slate gray cap, followed by a pale nape and cheek, then the same slate gray coloration on its back and wings. Sharp-shin has gray starting at the head and continuing down the nape, back, and wings. The adults of both species have red eyes.
Above, two spreads from The Crossley ID Guide to Raptors. The first is Cooper's Hawk, the second is Sharp-shinned Hawk. Click each image for a larger photo. 
Perched Juveniles/Immatures
    Separating the immature accipiters is certainly more complicated. Both species have yellow eyes. As stated on page 196 in The Crossley ID Guide to Raptors (which is a book I strongly recommend), co-authored by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan, "Juvenile Sharp-shinned is typically more heavily marked below, with reddish brown, thick streaks, as opposed to the thin, chocolate brown streaks of Cooper's." In addition, Cooper's Hawks appear to have a tawny-colored head. Of course, there are other structural-related clues that aid identification, which you can find in the paragraph below.
Structural ID Marks for All Ages
    Cooper's Hawks have a rather squared head, which is more apparent on adult birds. In comparison, Sharp-shinned Hawks have relatively small, rounded heads; this gives them a big-eyed appearance.
    Tail shape is typically useful, although not 100% reliable. Cooper's has a long tail that is normally rounded with a bold white tip. On the other hand, the tail of Sharp-shin is usually squared with a fainter white tip. Some Sharpies will show a slight notch at the center of the tail tip.
    Finally, the overall shape of a Cooper's Hawk is slim but rangy. Sharp-shinned Hawks appear heavy-chested.
Photo Quiz
     I'll start off by saying that I took these photos a few years ago with a point-and-shoot, so excuse the slightly fuzzy quality. You'll find four photos below, followed by answers and an explanation for each. You can click the images for a larger shot.

1. 1st-year Cooper's Hawk - This bird is obviously not an adult because of its yellow eyes and brown plumage. A closer look reveals a bird with a head, back and wings, and tail that all seem to fit each other proportionally compared to Sharp-shinned Hawk, whose shape gives the impression of a proportionally small head. Note the bolder white tail tip and the tawny, squared head.
2. (2nd-year?) Sharp-shinned Hawk - The small head and big eyes are somewhat apparent despite the angle. The bird's position - seemingly hunched forward - may hint that he/she is rather heavy-chested. Also note the faintly white-tipped, squared tail with the notch just at the center.
3. Adult Cooper's Hawk - The dark "cap" on the squared head is obvious. This bird appears slim compared to adult Sharp-shinned Hawks. Note the bird's eyes, which seem to be small.

4. 1st-year Cooper's Hawk - The same bird as pictured in #1. This photo shows the chocolate streaking and tawny head nicely. The eyes on this bird are relatively small and also yellowish, whereas many Sharp-shins have more orange-colored eyes. The eye coloration is not true for all birds though.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

~ Marsh Wrens ~

 October 13th, 2014 (Columbus Day) 
 J. Percy Priest WMA - Field Trial Area, Rutherford County, TN

   Across the U.S. is a small species with a bubbly personality. This species is the Marsh Wren, known by many for being one of those birds that can practically do the splits by clinging its feet from one reed to another. While these birds breed at cattail marshes or marshes with phragmites, during migration you can often find them in wet, grassy fields. And today, well, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time to see them. 
    We pulled up to the Field Trial Area at Percy Priest Lake, and with a glance at the fields on our left, I knew exactly where I wanted to be. The habitat was perfect - ideal - for our few target year birds, which, between my brother and I, included Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, LeConte's Sparrow, or Nelson's Sparrow. Reminded that we didn't have very long to bird, or at least, as long as we truly desired, we quickly hopped out of the car and began tracking through the fields.
    Rain had passed through just two hours prior to our arrival, causing the fields to be freshly wet. This wetness made me just a thousand times more confident that we would find one, or hopefully more, of our target birds today. Many of the grasses were bent low, recovering from the weight of the rain pounded on them earlier. But others were bent under the weight of sparrows, which perched on them for half-a-second and then were gone. Among the sparrows we saw were two immature White-crowned Sparrows, timidly turning toward us, then fleeing to the redoubt of shrubbery. There were also loads of Song and Swamp Sparrows dashing across the mowed path before us. 
    A harsh chat from the tangle of plants beside us revealed the presence of a female Common Yellowthroat. As pretty as this bird was, though, it still wasn't what we wanted. We stopped every now and then to play Marsh and Sedge Wren tape, but each time we received no response. Still, we continued. I knew that sooner or later something interesting was bound to show up. My hypothesis proved true.
    I decided that I would play tape, accompanied by pishing, at least once more. The song of a Marsh Wren poured from the speaker just as a quiet, scolding chi chi chi sounded from ahead. Movement occurred where the sound was coming from, then a bird popped up. I raised my binoculars, and....Marsh Wren! 

Marsh Wren

    What a cute little fellow with the typical, proud, wren-like attitude. 
Marsh Wren

    We were extremely excited to see the wren. It was my 246th Tennessee year bird - only four species away from 250...
    Eventually, we totaled three Marsh Wrens, two seen and one heard. A surprise for us was a Lincoln's Sparrow that was probably my first to spot without pishing. We came across an unidentified duck decoy, too, in one of the pools. It was likely a female Mallard based on shape/structure.

Unidentified Duck Decoy

  It was rather hysterical watching two Palm Warblers pump their tails simultaneously while perched on an electrical wire! These Palms belong to the "Western" subspecies.

Palm Warblers

    Great Egrets are often cast aside on days when you get a year bird or two, but, nevertheless, they are beautiful creatures.

Great Egret

Overall, it was a very fun outing!

View my complete eBird checklist here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fall Warblers - You've gotta love 'em.

   With the changing of the seasons comes the departure and the arrival of many bird species. Most birders seem to think "warblers" as the winds shift to the North and the sky puts on its glorious, clear, blue uniform. You can take that group of warbler-thinking birders and further divide it into two smaller groups: those who are confident when it comes to identifying these small, quick passerines, and those who are intimidated by them. Hopefully this post will help those with a lack of confidence in warbler ID.
   I, fortunately, have never felt intimidated when encountering a warbler in fall dress. Nevertheless, no matter how experienced in birding you are, you cannot avoid the challenge that comes with warbler ID. You can face these challenges in a different way, though, and often the result is increased confidence and even a new, enjoyable style of birding.
   Before I dive into the core of this post, we have to discuss how to locate a warbler. After all, at this time of year, most birds are not even singing, resulting in a bit more difficulty finding them. When searching for warblers, I usually listen for their calls, which usually sound like a simple "chip." I'll also listen for their flight calls, and these often come in the form of "seet's" or "zeet's" (for lack of better description). Warblers are frequently found with chickadees and titmice too, so if you ever come across an active flock of either species, definitely keep your eyes open for warblers. Finally, be on the alert for movement in the tree tops or in the understory, which may be a foraging warbler.
   So now, back to identifying warblers...  

   1. Consider location and habitat.

    I recommend that the first thing you do when faced with a warbler is consider the bird's location. Is the bird foraging in the canopy? Or is it quietly moving in the understory? Nearly every Setophaga warbler is found high in the trees, while warblers of genus Geothlypis and others are almost always seen low to the ground. Narrowing down your mystery bird to a tree top or ground-loving forager definitely helps shorten the identification process. Also, ask yourself about the habitat. Is the warbler in an evergreen or deciduous tree? Habitat questions are also somewhat helpful, but please remember that many warblers will stray from their primary habitat during migration, so don't solely rely on habitat to aid identification.

    2. Try to get a look at the bird's face.

   You can identify any warbler by simply paying attention to the details of the bird's face. Does it have an eye-ring? If so, is the eye-ring complete? Is it thick or thin? Little details like this are incredibly powerful field marks.
Despite the shadows cast by the cedar, you can still see the basic face pattern of this
Black-throated Green Warbler.

   3. Study the warbler's underside.

   Unfortunately, many warblers remain high in the trees, giving us views of only their undersides. As frustrating as it is, the coloration of a bird's throat, breast, or belly can be somewhat useful in identification. For example, Yellow Warblers are, of course, completely yellow on the throat, breast, and belly, but their close relative, the Chestnut-sided Warbler, is mostly gray in the same areas during the fall. Whatever you do, don't pass up a look at a warbler's underside, dismissing it as useless.

   4. Pay attention to the bird's wings.
   This is especially helpful with warblers that have similar face patterns and undersides. A good example would be Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers. A head-shot of both would result in two very similar birds, but then, if you move down to the undersides, you might notice peachy sides on the Bay-breasted Warbler (depending on the bird's age/sex). This coloration should be absent on Tennessee Warbler. Finally, if the birds turn, notice that the Tennessee's wings are practically the same shade of greenish-yellow as the rest of its body, while the Bay-breasted's wings are black with two white wing bars.

Even looking away, the wings and sides of a Bay-breasted Warbler easily separate it
 from the somewhat similar Tennessee Warbler.

    5. Don't ignore the under-tail and the undertail coverts.

    Believe it or not, the under-tail of a warbler is an extremely useful field mark. One of the most common fall warblers in Eastern North America is the Magnolia Warbler, and, incredibly enough, you can identify this species by just the pattern on its under-tail alone! If you ever get a look at just a bird's under-tail, don't ignore it. I'll repeat: this can be a surprisingly useful clue to the species' identity.
    Also, pay attention to undertail coverts. This, too, aids in separating similar species. Orange-crowned and Tennessee Warblers are both very similar, but one difference is that Orange-crowned Warblers have yellow undertail coverts while Tennessees have white undertail coverts. So never dismiss either of these parts of a warbler.

The under-tails and undertail coverts of a few warblers.

    6. Carefully judge size.

     Size is something to note with all birds - not just warblers. This is best done when you have two birds to directly compare. Whenever you encounter a large group of warblers, survey the flock with the naked eye, and then use your binoculars to more closely observe birds that look larger.  

   7. Watch its behavior.

    Observing a bird's behavior takes a bit of practice, but over time you may notice a particular species acting differently than others. Black-and-White Warblers, for instance, forage like nuthatches, while other warblers normally don't feed in this way. Another example would be the tail-pumping of a Palm Warbler versus the tail-flicking of a Wilson's Warbler. If you come across a warbler that seems to be acting "strange," I would certainly give it a check.

Black-and-White Warbler acting in the typical nuthatch-fashion.

    8. Listen for calls and flight calls.

    This is easily the hardest part in warbler identification. Fortunately, you don't have to base identification on the calls or flight calls of warblers. There are, however, a few species with distinct calls, such as Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart, and more. If you hear a warbler calling but you don't know what it is, try to record it - even if you have to use your phone. Later, compare your recording to various warbler recordings online. Arguably the best website with bird vocalizations is Xeno-Canto.

    By now you should see that, if you take the correct approach to fall warbler ID, it isn't as hard as you first thought. And I truly hope that those of you who needed a confidence boost in warbler ID got it from this post. Now, it's time to get outside and put what you've learned to practice! (Warning: Looking for warblers may result in neck pain, often referred to as "warbler neck." Use caution!)

*Note: Two outstanding books on warblers are the aforementioned A Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett, and The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Camp Avocet 2014 - Days Five & Six

    Join me on my adventures at 2014 Camp Avocet. Click here to read my write-up from days one & two of the week and here for days three & four.

   Day Five: Of all the days I was to spend at Camp Avocet, I was looking forward to day five the most! Today we went to bird-famous Cape May, New Jersey, by taking the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Along the way we saw several Wilson's Storm-Petrels, which was a lifer for the vast majority of the campers, and several leaping Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, among other species. 
    Our first birding stop was at Higbee Beach where we split up into two groups to bird the trails. We came across small groups of warblers including several energetic American Redstarts, and a few Black-and-White and Yellow Warblers. At the observation platform we briefly observed an uncooperative yet vocal Alder Flycatcher, a Prairie Warbler, Cedar Waxwings, a Gray Catbird, and more. We retraced our steps and took a different path near an overgrown field. A couple Northern Waterthrushes "chinked" from the treelines, and a nice group of Eastern Kingbirds fluttered across the trail.
   We met up with the other group of campers and finally headed to the Cape May Point State Park. Once again we split up and looped around the pond and through the woods. Flycatchers were the highlight here; we found Great Crested, Alder, Least, and Willow Flycatchers, plus Eastern Kingbird! But the best bird was an Olive-sided Flycatcher spotted by instructor Bill Stewart as it perched on an open snag. Olive-sided Flycatcher was my 317th lifebird and my final lifer of 2014 Camp Avocet.

Olive-sided Flycatcher - digiscoped photo by Andrew Marden

    We saw large numbers of Black Scoters throughout the week, fifty-seven of which were observed here in Cape May County. There were also two Surf Scoters hanging out with the Blacks. These scoters were incredibly cooperative, allowing all of us to take close-ups.

  Female Black Scoter

A couple of the many Black Scoters we saw.

   Dinner was held at Michael O'Brien and Louise Zemaitis' home, and we had an awesome time cracking jokes and even watching our fellow camper Claire Wayner feed a Ruby-throated Hummingbird! A huge thanks to Michael and Louise for opening their house to us wild bird-enthusiasts.   ;)

   Day Six: Today, we were all thrilled about participating in Camp Avocet's "Big Green Hour," which is basically like a big day smashed into an hour, but it's on foot, and we could only count species that we actually saw (no heard-onlys). The counting took place near Gordon's Pond at Cape Henlopen State Park.  Our group placed first with a total of 47 species seen.
   Bill Stewart informed us that we would be going to the Fractured Prune next, and I immediately thought "What on earth is the Fractured Prune?!?!?" I assumed it was just another birding place; after all, we had previously been scheduled to visit a place called Taylor's Gut earlier this week. So the Fractured Prune as a birding location wasn't totally out of the question. Well, I was pretty much shocked when we pulled into the parking lot of a bright purple and green donut shop. The Fractured Prune - of all the names in the world - was a donut shop!!! And the donuts were good too! Definitely check it out if you ever visit Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. 
   We finished birding early today, and we spent the afternoon at the beach. The weather was perfect, with bright, sunny blue skies and a slight breeze. Most of us swam (except me and I think a couple others), and after a while, many played Kanjam. 
   Back at the Virden Center it was more Frisbee, S'mores, and fun - all temporary remedies to help forget that tomorrow was to be our last day!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Camp Avocet 2014 - Days Three & Four

Click here for the post for days one and two of my adventures
at 2014 Camp Avocet.

   Day Three: We were up very early for the third day of Camp Avocet - a day in which we would spend birding at Chincoteauge NWR in Virginia. It was at least a two-hour ride from Lewes, Delaware to the National Wildlife Refuge, but the entertaining conversations in the van made the time seem half that much!
   We stopped at the visitor's center for a quick break before we officially began. In the parking lot, we saw the rare Delmarva Fox Squirrel. 

Delmarva Fox Squirrel carrying some sort of snack. Photo by Chloe Walker.

   As we traveled we could see hundreds of shorebirds resting and feeding on our left, so we parked to get a better look at them. It was here that I (finally!) got my lifer Red Knot. At first there was only one, but later we saw at least a dozen more. We all had wonderful views of several shorebird species, including Black-bellied, Piping, and Semipalmated Plovers; Killdeer; both "Eastern" and "Western" subspecies of Willets; Spotted Sandpiper; Ruddy Turnstone; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Marbled Godwit; Stilt and Semipalmated Sandpipers; and Short-billed Dowitcher. There were also many Royal Terns, a few Black Skimmers, and a lone Sandwich Tern lounging on the sand.
View #1 of the shorebirds, gulls, and terns at Chincoteauge.

View #2 at Chincoteague.

Ruddy Turnstone (on ground, left edge of photo);
Semipalmated Sandpiper (in front of farthest left Royal Tern); Royal Terns (on mud flat); Laughing Gull (mud flat and flying); "Eastern" and "Western" Willets (back).

Red Knots (back left) with "Western" and "Eastern" Willets (back and front); Black Skimmers and Royal Terns (middle); Ring-billed Gull (far right); Semipalmated Sandpipers (front).

 Royal Tern

 Royal Terns with peeps (Semipalmated or Least near back) and Ruddy Turnstones (front).

Which one is the Sandwhich Tern? Click the image to enlarge it.

 We drove around the loop next and were treated to lots of wading birds. Arguably, the best were the two night-herons: one juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and one adult Black-crowned Night-Heron both in the same pool of water. Cattle, Great, and Snowy Egrets; Little Blue, Tricolored, and Great Blue Herons; and Glossy and White Ibises were also numerous.
      Brown-headed Nuthatches often frequent the pine woods within this National Wildlife Refuge, so we stopped to try and locate a few. Pishing worked well; it attracted an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a couple Carolina Chickadees, and finally, three Brown-headed Nuthatches. Unfortunately they weren't very cooperative!

    Day Four: Today we went to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, but on our way we stopped at the DuPont Nature Center. Here, I got the world's best photo of the world's largest Red Knot! 

    Just before we entered Bombay Hook NWR, we passed a set of potato fields filled with shorebirds (and potatoes). Our only Pectoral Sandpipers of the week were here, along with Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers.
    Sedge Wrens had been previously reported in a field within the refuge, so the counselors decided that it was best that we checked there first. Well, we did hear a Sedge Wren, and we did see it flying, but other than that, we had no decent views. Sedge Wren was actually a lifer for the majority of the group. In this area, we also saw and heard fly-over Bobolinks and watched a young Black Vulture being fed on the chimney of an old house!

Black Vultures. The baby is the center bird.

   One of the joys of birding is not just the birds that you encounter but the other wildlife as well. Butterflies were very abundant throughout the refuge, including the Pearl Crescent below. There were also many wildflowers, my favorite of which was Chicory.

Pearl Crescent


    Now the fun part began. We slowly traveled along the refuge loop and stopped several times to scan the shorebird flocks. Our stop at the first pond was timed perfectly; we arrived just when the tide was high and the shorebirds were pouring in over the road. It was a spectacular, unforgettable sight!
     Pool after pool we scanned. Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers were overly abundant. Several Lesser Yellowlegs fed close to the road as well. A Bonaparte's Gull was a big surprise as it rested on a mudflat with other gulls and terns. As we rounded a corner, three very large white birds resting on the water's edge caught our eye. There were two Mute Swans, one Great Egret, one Snow Goose, and my 316th lifer, Tundra Swan.
      On our way out we re-checked the potato field and found our first and only three Western Sandpipers of the week. Unfortunately they were gone before I had a chance to look through the scope. 
      Back at the Virden Center we spent the evening playing Frisbee. I had the most fun ever! I believe from now on, Frisbee will be the official Camp Avocet game of choice!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

2014 ABA Camp Avocet - Days One & Two

   After my pelagic trips, I headed up to Lewes, Delaware for a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the American Birding Association's Camp Avocet. All of us campers were dropped off on the afternoon of August 10th, and we were to leave on August  16th.
   Day One (August 11th): We took a brief walk past the salt marsh at the Virden Center where we were based. The seven Clapper Rails we saw strutting openly in the canals were definitely the highlight. (It would have been even better if I hadn't left my camera in our dorm....) Next we headed to the point at Cape Henlopen for a little sunset birding. We saw a couple American Oystercatchers and Semipalmated Plovers, and several Sanderlings, among other distant shorebirds. We observed over a dozen Black Scoters and one Red-breasted Merganser, plus loads of gulls and terns as well.

The breathtaking sunset at Cape Henlopen

   Day Two (August 12th): On our first full day of birding we went to various spots within Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Shorebirds, terns, and waders were the highlight here, and they all provided great study!

 Great and Snowy Egrets
 Semipalmated Sandpiper

 Snowy Egrets and American Avocets

Snowy Egret (left) with a Black-necked Stilt (right)

   At Fowler Beach (still part of Prime Hook) we flushed several sparrows but without satisfying looks. Our camp counselor George Armistead started pishing, and finally multiple Seaside Sparrows and one Saltmarsh Sparrow popped up and landed on a dead branch. The Saltmarsh Sparrow was a totally unexpected sighting, and it was my 314th lifer! Other than the sparrows, we had wonderful looks at Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibises, Least Sandpipers, one Whimbrel, one Piping Plover, and much more.

 Saltmarsh Sparrow

Snowy Egret

 Glossy Ibis

 Least Sandpiper

   Back at our base at the Virden Center, we had a fantastic dinner and an awesome presentation by Louise Zemaitis on "Birding by Habitat." We all went to bed satisfied with the day and excited about birding at Chincoteague the next day. (Days 3 - 6 are soon to follow.)