Monday, December 12, 2016

1st State Record: Northern Wheatear, Loudon County, TN

    This year has been rather epic for Tennessee birding. We've had four (or five) 1st state records*, which hasn't happened since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Southern U.S. in 2005. Although not new for the state, other rarities seen this year include Pomarine Jaeger, Sabine's Gull, Eurasian Wigeon, and Smith's Longspur.
    Although we had not done much chasing this year (or general birding, for that matter), Nolan and I really wanted to see the Northern Wheatear, which had been found in Loudon County, Tennessee. Those who had already seen the bird said that it was an easy chase. You could simply pull up and the bird would be sitting on a fence post fifteen feet in front of you. All we needed was a means of transportation, so we were thrilled when a few of our birding buddies offered to give us a ride. We left early on Saturday morning, November 19. I was extremely anxious, worried that the bird would be gone, so I was relieved to hear positive news that the bird had been sighted during our two and a half hour drive to Windy Hill Farm. When we arrived, it turned out to be just as easy as described. Indeed, the bird was sitting on a fence post and allowed close approach. What a gorgeous bird!**

    The Northern Wheatear is known for having a diagnostic bright white tail with a black "T", so I tried to get a flight shot. This was the best I could manage:

    I didn't want to just come here, tick off an easy lifebird, and then leave. I wanted to actually observe the bird and learn something. I watched it for a few minutes. When feeding, the bird would stand still for a moment, then run on the pasture and attempt to catch a meal (usually crickets). I also noticed that it bobbed its tail, the speed and motion most similar to a Northern Waterthrush. However, what I found most interesting was that it kept bending over and flashing its bold tail pattern. The behavior reminded me of what I had seen with a large flock of peeps at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2013. The shorebirds would feed with their short tails up in the air, marking their feeding territories. With this in mind, I looked up the behavior when I got back home. Sure enough, I found a link with interesting information online, confirming my hypothesis. "T" is for "territory" after all. Such a fascinating species!
    This was my 349th ABA area lifebird and my 291st Tennessee lifebird. Our complete eBird checklist is here:

*1. January 5, 2016: Lesser Goldfinch found by Mark Greene in Lake County, TN
2. October 2, 2016: Brown Booby found by Ruben Stoll in Benton/Humphreys County, TN
3. November 13, 2016: Northern Wheatear found by Tony King in Loudon County, TN
4. November 22, 2016: Bohemian Waxwing found by Colin Sumrall in Knox County, TN

    In 2011, a Hooded Oriole was discovered on July 8 in Lincoln County, TN; however, despite most birders believing that it was of wild origin, it was, incredibly, not accepted by the Tennessee Bird Records Committee. Not surprisingly, a second Hooded Oriole was seen from June 1-3, 2016, at a private residence in Giles County, TN. Thus, you could consider this a fifth 1st state record for the year.

**Click photos for a sharper image.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

White-faced Storm-Petrel: Dream Becomes Reality

Gulf Stream off Hatteras, NC   

    The Stormy Petrel II rocked slightly at the dock, a sign that it was going to be somewhat choppier than the previous two days at sea. The engine rumbled, and soon we were navigating through the shoals in Hatteras Inlet, passing a tightly knit group of Little Blue Herons and a dozen Royal and Common Terns which were hardly more than silhouettes in the early morning light. As we rounded the final buoy, the sun arose and the sky was painted in a glorious array of warm-colored hues, perhaps an omen of good birding to come.

Sunrise from Hatteras Inlet

    The Atlantic Ocean welcomed us with open but largely desolate arms, and we did not see much life other than a few Black Terns still within sight of land. Even the energetic little flying fish were in low numbers. But the sea could not remain a desert, and soon we found two Sooty Terns, an adult with a juvenile, and a collection of Cory's Shearwaters as we continued our voyage into deeper waters.

Juvenile Sooty Tern

    The rock of the boat and the refreshing breeze in my face left me in a content daydream for a moment, until the peace was broken when Brian Patteson's voice sounded from the speaker, "White-faced Storm-Petrel, starboard side!" What did he say? I couldn't hear well over the engine's roar from where I was sitting, but I hurried to the starboard rail anyway. "Three o'clock, White-faced Storm-Petrel!" the captain repeated. No way, no way, no way! But I and fifteen others soon spotted the bird bouncing on the waves. I rushed into the cabin, grabbed my camera, and returned to the stern where it was more stable and therefore better for photography. As I peered through the eyepiece, I watched this cute storm-petrel skipping and skidding over the water on long legs. Blown by the strong wind, the storm-petrel would often be carried away from us, forcing Brian to have to increase our speed to keep up. We would always see him again, though, merrily hopping on the water just as a child jumps on a pogo stick. However, the mad swell of the seas eventually caused us to abandon our pursuit of the bird, and we left him to his child's play. 

White-faced Storm-Petrel in flight

White-faced Storm-Petrel skidding on the water

    You can imagine how excited we were! There were many broad smiles, high-fives, and cheering as we sped away. Sometimes rare birds like this White-faced Storm-Petrel don't give us good views because they're in bad lighting, intimidated by our boat, or simply aren't interested in the chum.  Fortunately that was not the case with this bird, and I can safely say that all of us had fantastic looks at close range! It was a lifebird for me, and for almost everyone else.

My best shot of the White-faced Storm-Petrel

    We traveled a few more miles before we finally slowed down and created an oil slick behind the boat, and like clockwork, our summering Cory's Shearwaters, Black-capped Petrels, and Wilson's Storm-Petrels soon filed in. We drifted for a couple of hours before we had our first sighting of a Great Shearwater, which came in low from the portside of the boat. Shortly thereafter, leader Chris Sloan spotted a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel among the Wilson's following us. It was wonderful to see these after missing them the day before.

Great Shearwater

Cory's and Great Shearwaters

Great Shearwater

    At about mid-morning, our first and only Manx Shearwater of the three-day set zoomed up the portside of the boat, but it was gone before I had a chance to see it. When I came back to the stern, I spotted a bird coming toward us that looked like a tern, but when I lifted my binoculars it was not a tern but a Long-tailed Jaeger! Kate Sutherland, first mate on the Stormy Petrel II, had always told me that Long-tailed Jaegers reminded her of terns because of their flight style and slender appearance, but now I was witnessing it myself. This was yet another new species for the weekend!
    The afternoon slowed down dramatically, and we did not see much other than the occasional appearance of another Black-capped Petrel or Cory's Shearwater. This gave everyone an opportunity to talk to new people. I enjoyed chatting with several birders from Canada, and it was only when talking to them that I learned that it was actually one of their group, Tim Lucas, who spotted the White-faced Storm-Petrel! We also had visitors from Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and more! Before we knew it, though, it was time to return to the marina, and on the way back we saw additional Cory's, Great, and Audubon's Shearwaters, and some sort of passerine that we couldn't identify to species.
    I didn't get very many pictures and I know it wasn't the most action-filled of days, but we saw a White-faced Storm-Petrel, a White-faced Storm-Petrel! That was one of my most-wanted species ever since I saw photos in Steve Howell's Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America. To be honest, though, I never thought I'd see one since typically they are most reliably found in the northeastern part of the United States and who knew if I'd ever wander up that way.
    In conclusion, thank you, as always, Brian and Kate, for allowing me to come out and give a hand! My very favorite adventures, the ones I recall most fondly, have been on the boat with you. I wonder what we'll find the next time I'm out there....

*Click the image for a much clearer photo.


Seabirding Website at:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

More Pelagic Photos

Below are a few more photos from the series of pelagics I helped lead from May 30 - June 11, 2016. Click here to read the full post.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, from June 11

Pomarine Jaeger, from June 1

Wilson's Storm-Petrel, from June 1

Audubon's Shearwater, from June 2

Great Shearwater, from June 11

Black-capped Petrel, from June 11

Leach's Storm-Petrel, from June 1

Cory's Shearwater, from June 3

"Scopoli's" Shearwater, from June 1

First-mate Kate Sutherland and leader Seabird McKeon, from June 1

Top deck of the Stormy Petrel II, from June 1

Bottlenose Dolphin, from June 3

Carrier Ship, from June 10

The trustworthy chum basket, from June 10

Loggerhead Sea Turtle, from June 10

Sunrise on my last day, June 11

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Eight Days Offshore

    I've said it many times that my favorite type of birding is pelagic birding - traveling 30 miles or so offshore in a fishing boat where you throw out chum and fish oil to lure in the birds. Many find this a very tedious activity; I think it's absolutely awesome!
    I spent 8 out of 14 days of our vacation aboard the Stormy Petrel II cruising along the Gulf Stream off Hatteras, North Carolina. We had visitors from at least 14 states and even a small group of exceptional birders from Britain. The weather was rather sketchy, as Tropical Storms Bonnie and Colin brought excessive rainfall and strong winds to our area. Throughout all of this, though, the birding was spectacular. I could easily write a post for every day I was out in the Atlantic, but I'll just stick to a general summary of all of our trips.
    Day one, May 30, was very choppy. I was extremely tired and pretty much slept the whole day, but when the leaders spotted two Trindade Petrels and a Fea's Petrel, I did at least force myself to get up and see them before hunkering back down in my favorite corner. Just after noon, a South Polar Skua came in to investigate our boat, and I drowsily grabbed my camera and took several photos of this awesome lifer. My non-birder dad, who was also on the boat, was even impressed!

South Polar Skua

   I skipped May 31 because I needed one day to recover, but I came back out on June 1 and finally felt well enough to help lead the trip. We had several Pomarine Jaegers throughout the day, and they gave us excellent views! One bird, pictured below, had a tattered left wing, and at one time he even crashed into the poles atop the boat!

Pomarine Jaeger

    On June 2, the third day, we had two Fea's Petrels! The first Fea's, which Captain Brian Patteson spotted, actually visited for several minutes, while the second bird, which I called out, only stayed around for a short time. We also had good looks at Black-capped Petrels and Leach's Storm-Petrels before our miserable ride back to the inlet.

Fea's Petrel

Black-capped Petrel

Leach's Storm-Petrel

    We had only 2 passengers and 4 leaders on day four, June 3. We started off with a beautiful female Red-necked Phalarope not too far from the inlet, then had nice looks at Cory's Shearwaters out in the deep. By the end of the day, we were all pretty much half asleep when we noticed a white bird sitting on the water. It took us a minute to process exactly what was happening as the bird was literally slammed by an unusually aggressive Cory's Shearwater! When the victim took off fleeing, we realized that it was an immature Red-billed Tropicbird!

Red-necked Phalarope

Cory's Shearwater

    June 4, day five, was a slow and sunny day, but fortunately most of our passengers were new to the Gulf Stream. Our best bird was a Bridled Tern sitting on a piece of floating debris.

Bridled Tern

    June 5 was the last day of the Spring Blitz, and it closed nicely! Kate spotted a dark bird flying low to the water, and although the views weren't satisfying, it was seen well enough to be identified as a noddy - likely a Brown, although immature Black cannot be ruled out. Still, I believe this was only the second noddy Brian had seen off Hatteras! Minutes later, I was in the stern with Kate Sutherland while she was putting a new chum block into the cage. Two birds came in from the sun glare, and I fully expected them to be Black-capped Petrels, but the first bird I put my binoculars on was clearly a mottled brown color. My brain immediately clicked: light morph Trindade Petrel. I leaped down from my seat on the cooler and tried to point it out to Kate, who was still dangling over the railing juggling the chum. She somehow managed to radio Brian to stop, and in the mean time I tried to get the other birders who were also in the wake on the bird, which was already buzzing straight away from us. Brian did not see the petrel and was skeptical, and Kate only glimpsed it out of the corner of her eye, so I was beginning to doubt myself. However, Will Brooks from California handed me his camera with a picture of the petrel, and I ran inside to Brian and Kate in the wheelhouse and showed them the photo. It was confirmed! Although I'm obviously not the only one who has spotted a Trindade Petrel on the Stormy Petrel II, this was a big deal for me because I finally got to contribute something among these fantastic birders. I always feel like I have to work hard to keep up with their skill!
    There was a short break between the end of the Spring Blitz and the start of the next set of pelagics, but I came back on Friday, June 10, for my seventh day on the water. We drifted for a minute or two just after reaching the Gulf Stream and each of us got to release a young Loggerhead Sea Turtle! Then we got back on course and created an oil slick. Within an hour we had about 40 Wilson's Storm-Petrels following us. Kate kept seeing an "odd" storm-petrel among the Wilson's, and finally she had decent enough looks to confirm that it was a European Storm-Petrel - the first since the trip I was on in May 2014! This tiny storm-petrel eventually became the closest bird to the boat, and everyone had absolutely incredible views! It was a lifer for almost everyone, and it followed us for at least four hours! The Euro was definitely the highlight of the day, next to an incredible aerial chase between a Black-capped Petrel and an immature Long-tailed Jaeger!

European Storm-Petrel

Black-capped Petrel vs. Long-tailed Jaeger

    We did not have any rarities on June 11, which was day eight for me and the last trip of the weekend. However, the birds were extremely hungry, and we had absolutely astounding views of all of our Gulf Stream specialties, plus a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and a few pilot whales. As you can imagine, it was great for us photographers!

Great Shearwater

Black-capped Petrel

Party in the slick!

Pilot Whale
    As usual, I had a wonderful time in the Gulf Stream with Seabirding. A huge thank you to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for allowing me to come out and give a hand!
    A complete album from my trip to Hatteras Island, including some photos from land, is here on Flickr: Hatteras Island, 2016.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Reaching Out to the Little Ones

    In a country where technology is increasingly becoming an obsession, it's comforting to see little children experiencing the joys of nature. I help out at my brother and sister's school on Tuesdays, and today the Primary class and I went outside for our regular nature notebook session. Together, we discovered a Killdeer nest with four eggs in one of the dirt garden beds. The kids were very excited, and I used this as an opportunity to teach them not just a little about Killdeers but also about birds in general. For example, at one point the Killdeer sitting on the nest had its mouth open, so I asked the kids, "Why do you think it's doing that?" Most of them answered the same. "Probably because it's about to call." I explained that birds can't sweat, so, like dogs, they pant to keep cool. (Good thing too, because it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside!) None of the children knew this, and they quickly wrote it down in their journals.

    Not all kids are receptive to nature, so I'm very blessed that these children have a willingness to learn and discover new things. I'm also very thrilled and even humbled when they come to me with questions about birds, butterflies, or plants. Their curiosity livens me and gives me the same vigor I remember having when I first started birding. Who knows...perhaps one of them will become a birder someday...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers Up Close

    There's a road not far from our house called Lytle Creek Road. At a glance, it's nothing special, with old weathered barns, rusty barbed wire fences, and lazy cattle. This street looks like a normal, two-lane country road, but the birds apparently think otherwise. Every summer, multiple pairs of Grasshopper Sparrows, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Blue Grosbeaks nest here. These are all spectacular birds, but the real highlight is the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

    There are at least two pairs of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on Lytle Creek Road. One pair is extremely cooperative - and quite possibly the most photogenic Scissor-tails in the world. Sometimes they seem to beg me to take their picture.

    I honestly don't think I could ever grow tired of seeing and photographing these gorgeous birds.

    Wow. Anyway, I just wanted to share a little beauty from the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. 

~ ~ ~

    Next week we're heading to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We'll be out there for a while, hopefully seeing lots of awesome birds, so check back in a few weeks for a post about our trip!