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The final stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge started the same way that the last stretch ended – with a little more cheating.  I birded outside my home patch once again to get another new county bird.  This time it was a bird that I’ve seen many times, a Black-crowned Night-Heron, but with birding games it’s all about location; this was only the fourth time this species had been seen in Forsyth County in the last 20 years.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

A birder/photographer not known to local birders saw the heron in a wetland as he was driving by early in the morning of May 17.  He stopped, got an excellent photo, and luckily for local birders, submitted an eBird checklist.  A few people searched for the bird during the day, but were unsuccessful in finding it.  I didn’t think that it would leave during the day, so I went to look for it in the late afternoon.  Another birder joined me in the search, which mainly consisted of standing in one place and scanning for two hours.  Finally, just before total darkness set in, we finally saw the bird on the far side of the wetland.  I was able to get photos as we watched it for about three minutes and then it flew off into the night.  Don’t we birders know how to have fun?

Back in my home patch, I continued to enjoy the neighborhood breeding birds.  One of my neighbors has a funky purple bird house that the Brown-headed Nuthatches seem to love.  They have used it for years and I was happy to see them in it again this year.

Purple nest box in a neighbor's yard

Purple nest box in a neighbor’s yard

These adorable little nuthatches are one of my favorite birds.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed Nuthatch

I’d like to say that was the start of a great week, but not much happened during the next few days except for rain nearly all day every day.  Finally, late on Friday afternoon, I was able to get out between showers, so I took my scope to scan the lake.  I didn’t see any birds at all with my naked eye, but when I scoped the far end, I found mama Wood Duck with six to eight ducklings swimming behind her!  I love Wood Ducks and I remember the thrill when I first found one on my lake.  One of my neighbors is a Wood Duck fan, too, and, several years ago he optimistically put up a nest box.  To my surprise, we did have a nesting pair use the box, but, sadly, raccoons got all the eggs.  I wasn’t optimistic at all.  I figured that if the eggs did hatch, the many large turtles on the lakes would get the babies.  But, here were Wood Duck ducklings on our lake!  This was unquestionably the most surprising and exciting find of the entire 8-week yard challenge for me.  I would have loved to get a photo, but the ducks were at the far end of the lake and it was raining again as I watched them swim away from me.

Canada Geese have better luck raising young on our three lakes.  We have at least one or two families that successfully reproduce every year.  Yes, they are just our resident geese who are too lazy to migrate, but the goslings are still adorable.

Canada Goose family

Canada Goose family

The first day of week two, Saturday, May 23, brought another surprise.  There is a vacant lot down the street from me with very thick scrubby habitat next to mature trees.  I had already seen Orchard Orioles there along with gnatcatchers, catbirds, and quite a few other birds.  That morning I heard a Yellow-breasted Chat.  I wasn’t shocked, but very pleasantly surprised.  This was a new bird for the Yardbirds and a bonus, too, as it was the first time I had ever observed one in the neighborhood.  I recorded the bird’s raucous call and then played the call hoping that it would react and I could see it, too.  It flew to less than ten feet from where I was standing!  He didn’t stay long enough for a photo, but what a great look – no binoculars needed!

When I got home, this big beauty was waiting for me in my backyard and willing to pose for a photo.  I hear these owls calling nearly every day in summer, but it’s always nice to see them.

Barred Owl in my backyard

Barred Owl in my backyard

Again, I hoped that it was the start of a great week and that the Yard Squad Challenge would have an exciting finish, but the Chat was the last bird that I added to the Yardbirds list.  I birded every day for the rest of the week, but I was unable to find any new species.  My last birds on May 29 were a Wood Thrush sweetly singing in the woods at the end of the street just before dark and then a pair of Barred Owls calling to each other across the lake when I got to my house.

Brown Thrasher in the neighborhood, one of my favorite birds

Brown Thrasher in the neighborhood, one of my favorite birds

The Yardbirds came in third among the original seven teams with 350 species for the entire competition from April 4 and May 29.  That’s in just 8 weeks with ten birders, a very impressive result in my opinion.  Our team worked hard as evidenced by our 114 bonus birds, species observed for the first time in a birder’s home patch.  We had perseverance, too, and birded enthusiastically until the very last day which put us third among all ten teams for the fourth two-week stretch with 267 species.  In my little North Carolina neighborhood, I found 83 species of birds; five of them were new for the neighborhood.  It was wonderful to have an activity that was fun and focused on the positive during these difficult days.  Many thanks to Matt Smith for creating and hosting the Yard Squad Challenge and to Joost Brandsma for leading the Yardbirds.

This is the fourth and last post about the Yard Squad Challenge.  Here are links to the earlier stories:
Birding in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 1 of 4)
Birding in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 2 of 4)
Birding in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 3 of 4)

I cheated on the Yardbirds on the first day of the third stretch.  At least I felt a little unfaithful to my team when I went birding at a favorite hotspot.  It was only about a mile from my house, but not part of my patch for the Yard Squad Challenge.  I ran into a couple of friends and had a wonderful morning which I have to admit was very refreshing.  It was a nice break from beating the same bushes in my neighborhood looking for new birds.  Later in the afternoon, I sat on my deck staring at the trees.  And, surprise, surprise – two male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were high in an oak.  They looked pretty content up there, but after a while they dropped down to the deck only a few feet away from where I sat.  Did I mention patience as one of the things that I’m learning?

Rose-breasted Grosbeak on my deck

Rose-breasted Grosbeak on my deck

The next day, it was back to work looking for birds in the ‘hood.  I had difficulty finding the warblers that I was hearing, but while I was searching the trees, a lovely male Scarlet Tanager landed in the oak where I’d seen the grosbeaks the previous day.  A new bird for the team!

Later, I shared recordings that I’d made that morning with a friend and with a Yardbirds teammate.  Both were able to pick out the song of a Cape May Warbler.  My strategy of making recordings when I couldn’t visually locate birds was paying off.  By the end of this stretch, three more birds from my patch would be identified by recorded songs.

New migrants passed through my area during this period, but I continued to have difficulty finding birds, especially warblers.  There is a reason that I’m usually traveling during the spring to places where the birds are easier to see.  However, I turned off my eBird county year needs alerts after my last post and that helped my sanity greatly.  As before, I tried my best to focus on what I did find.  And, nearly every time I went birding there was something interesting to observe.  Oh, Downy Woodpeckers have a nest in that tree.  Four Spotted Sandpipers all together in a corner of the lake; that might be a high count.  Fortunately, I’m easily amused and find all living creatures interesting.

A Yellow Warbler - one that I was able to hear, see, and photograph! It was also a new patch bird giving the Yardbirds a bonus point.

A Yellow Warbler – one that I was able to hear, see, and photograph! It was also a new patch bird giving the Yardbirds a bonus point.

Perhaps the birds that I’ve enjoyed the most this stretch are the pair of Orchard Orioles that I’m sure are breeding near the neighborhood beach.  I have to work a little to see them, but I can usually find at least one because these birds sing a lot.  And, yes, I mean birds (plural) as I have heard both the male and female of this pair sing.  I first heard a female Orchard Oriole sing a few years ago and I was shocked.  I had searched for the source of the singing that I heard and saw the female open her beak in sync with the song.  I mentioned it to a friend who is a bird song expert and he assured me that I wasn’t hallucinating.  If you’re not familiar with female bird song, check out this short introduction form the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Many Female Birds Sing Beautiful Songs.

Male Orchard Oriole

Male Orchard Oriole

I’ve also enjoyed the babies that appeared in the neighborhood during this stretch.  The resident birds got an early start and have already produced offspring while the migrants are still on their way north to their breeding grounds.  It seems like fledgling House Finches and Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere.  At least one Canada Goose family has fuzzy little goslings following them.  But, my favorite youngster may be this baby Carolina Wren begging to be fed.

Juvenile Carolina Wren

Juvenile Carolina Wren

Our lakes are the heart of my neighborhood and I love living here.  I believe that the lakes attract a lot of birds in addition to the ever-present Canada Geese, a few wintering ducks, and breeding Green Herons.  Eastern Kingbirds are among the species attracted to the water and they nest in the trees on the edges of our lakes.

An Eastern Kingbird surveys his lake

An Eastern Kingbird surveys his lake

Here is another view of my lake.  The obvious dock belongs to my next-door neighbors, but you can also just barely see my dock hidden under the trees.

Canvasback Lake, the largest of our three neighborhood lakes. I've seen quite a few species of ducks on our lakes, but never a Canvasback.

Canvasback Lake, the largest of our three neighborhood lakes. I’ve seen quite a few species of ducks on our lakes, but never a Canvasback.

I ended this stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge on May 15 the same way that I started it; I cheated.  I suspect that like all types of cheating, it gets easier each time.  Early yesterday morning a birding friend texted me that he had an Alder Flycatcher at my favorite close-by hotspot.  That might not sound like an exciting bird to you, but it is a very rare bird for my county.  It would not just be a new county bird for me, it would become our first documented county record.  I was out the door in five minutes and joined a small group of birders a few minutes later.  We were six birders trying to stay six feet apart.  Luckily, we all heard the distinctive song, more important for identification of a flycatcher than seeing the bird, although one person did catch a quick glimpse.

Yesterday afternoon, I birded my neighborhood again and didn’t find anything new, but I got responses from a couple of friends who had listened to another of my recordings.  After being nudged in the right direction, I, too, could pick out the Acadian Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee songs.

During this two-week stretch of the challenge, I’ve found seven new birds with five of them adding to the Yardbirds team count.  My total for the challenge is now at 80 species.  Can I find more birds in the final stretch?

If you missed Part 1, read it here.

It’s Saturday, April 25, as I write this and it’s the middle of the second stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge.  I’m going to remember this period for the psychological torture.  Our team, the Yardbirds, has fallen into the middle of the pack.  The competitive side of me doesn’t like that, but I tried to convince myself that I’ll just do my best and make my goal finding the most birds ever in my yard and neighborhood.

But, even more painful are the eBird needs alerts for county year birds that are flooding my Inbox.  Most checklists from the past few days have had eight to eleven species of warblers.  My recent checklists have had one – Northern Parula – and the stinking little birds just sing everywhere and won’t even let me see them.

And, if that were not enough torture, everyone is posting gorgeous photos of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and other lovely neotropical migrants on Facebook.  Even a neighbor stopped me while I was out birding to tell me that he had grosbeaks at his feeder.  Have I seen a Rose-breasted Grosbeak yet this year?  Of course not!

My friend, Kerry Eckhardt, photographed this spectacular male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at her feeder on April 27.

My friend, Kerry Eckhardt, photographed this spectacular male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at her feeder on April 27.

Others are even reporting Black-throated Blue Warblers.  That’s MY bird!  Oh, beautiful warbler, you have been on my deck many times.  I let thorny Devil’s Walking Stick colonize in my backyard because you like the berries to fuel your southward journey in the fall.  And, if the cardinals eat all the berries before you arrive here, I make sure the suet station in the bird buffet is never empty.  Many times you have stayed for ten days or longer and enjoyed my hospitality.  Oh, Black-throated Blue Warbler, where are you now when I really need you?

Most troubling of all, though, has been the late arrival of Wood Thrushes in my neighborhood.  Before today, I thought maybe I heard a distant song a couple of times, but it was too faint to be sure.  I have heard many people sadly say, “We used to have Wood Thrushes.”  I worry that my neighborhood will become one that used to have Wood Thrushes instead of one that has Wood Thrushes.  That fear is justified; this is a bird in trouble.  Audubon has designated it as a priority species because numbers have declined sharply in recent decades.  So, not hearing the ethereal flute-like Wood Thrush song, perhaps the most beautiful bird song in North America, wasn’t just disappointing for me; I was worried about the birds.  Learn more about the Wood Thrush from Audubon or this Smithsonian article.  For even more details about how the Wood Thrush makes its beautiful song see Can You Sing a Duet with Yourself?  And, enjoy this video from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Yesterday evening I had a conversation with a friend about my struggle to find birds.  I considered three possibilities: 1) the birds just aren’t here this year; 2) they are here but I can’t detect them due to my crappy vision and not great hearing; or 3) my strategy is poor and I’m not looking in the right places at the right times.  We decided that the last possibility was the only one that I could control, so I decided to change my routine.

This morning I left the house at 6:30 AM, still in my nightgown, to drive around with the windows down and listen.  But, just as I opened the car door, I heard it – a Wood Thrush singing in my backyard!  I was flooded with relief and anticipated a good day, but that was all I was going to get today (except for more parulas).

As frustrating as the last week has been, there have been high points, too.  I enjoy seeing pretty Spotted Sandpipers nearly every day and appreciated this one who actually flew towards me.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Sometimes the birding gods hear our pleas.  The morning after I wrote the above section, guess who showed up on my deck?

On April 26, this male Black-throated Blue Warbler made an appearance on my deck at 7:40 AM.

On April 26, this male Black-throated Blue Warbler made an appearance on my deck at 7:40 AM.

Later in the morning, I was thrilled to find another warbler, this one new for my patch list, a Hooded Warbler singing in the woods near the little stream that feeds into the lake.

My luck continued on Monday.  I was not feeling well and didn’t get out all morning.  Mid-afternoon, I pushed myself to at least generate an eBird report for something so that I would not lose my checklist streak (now at 123 days).  I did the easiest thing possible that involved leaving my yard – I walked over the dam and along the path through the woods by the side of the lake.  On my way back home, I caught a glimpse of movement by the side of the trail.  I felt very fortunate when I was able to locate a Veery about 30 feet away and get a good enough look for a solid ID.  But, that was just the beginning.  As I stood motionless, the bird moved closer and closer to me until it was only about 10-15 feet away and out in the open.  The gorgeous Veery didn’t seem to mind my presence at all as I alternately stared and photographed.  The timestamps on my photos show that I watched this wonderful little bird for five full minutes.

Veery

Veery

I found two more new species for the Yard Squad Challenge this past week – Orchard Oriole and Louisiana Waterthrush.  And, I continued to learn about my neighborhood birds.  I had seen a Louisiana Waterthrush only once before, but now that I heard one singing along the little creek that feeds into the lake, I’m betting that they breed along that creek and are here every year.

The Yard Squad Challenge is at the mid-point with four more weeks to go.  The height of migration is right now.  But, I have observed 73 species of birds in my neighborhood patch since the competition began on April 4, so finding new birds is getting tougher.  What will I discover this coming week?  Stay tuned for more birding in the time of COVID-19.

I had planned to be in Texas right now.  I wanted to see my granddaughter and share the delights of High Island with my friend, Diane.  I had almost counted my lifer Black-capped Vireo that I was sure to get this time.  But like nearly everyone else on the planet, my plans were shattered by the coronavirus.  Even if most local regulations don’t prohibit interstate travel, common sense dictates that this is the time to stay home.  Fortunately, I’ve found a new birding game to keep me occupied.

A few years ago, I wrote about Games Birders Play.  Since then Matt Smith has taken birding games to a whole new level with the launch of Fantasy Birding on New Year’s Day 2019.  Matt, a birder, writer, and web designer/developer, works as a GIS analyst and publishes children’s books in his spare time.  He lives with his wife and three kids near Charlottesville, Virginia.

I was slow to join Fantasy Birding, but on a whim I started playing the Carolinas game on March 1.  I didn’t want to start one of the big games (ABA or global) two months behind, but Carolinas just started on March 1.  I’m glad that I decided to play; otherwise I would not have known about the newest game that Matt kicked off at the beginning of April – the Yard Squad Challenge.

This latest game is real life birding, but only in one’s backyard or birding location close enough to walk to, i.e. patch birding.  Fantasy Birding fans across the globe formed seven teams of nine players each.  The draft was held live on Facebook and it was fast and crazy.  The team captains had a spreadsheet with the names and locations of all players along with the number of species that each person expected to observe in April and May.  The first three rounds were public, but the “peanut gallery” enjoyed it so much that Matt extended the drafting in public for another two rounds.  I was amazed and thrilled when Joost Brandsma, a Dutch birder marooned on an obscure island off the European coast, picked me in the fourth round.  Joost trained as a geologist but now work as a data scientist for a biomedical NGO based in Maryland.  I didn’t know Joost or any of the other team leaders, but who wouldn’t want to be on a team named “The Yardbirds”?

Ruby-crowned Kinglets were plentiful and easy to see in the first stretch of the challenge, but difficult to photograph. At least a bit of the ruby crown on this pretty male kinglet is visible.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets were plentiful and easy to see in the first stretch of the challenge, but difficult to photograph. At least a bit of the ruby crown on this pretty male kinglet is visible.

The game will consist of four two-week stretches with winners for each stretch as well as an overall winner.  As I write this, it is day eleven and I have birded in my neighborhood every single day and nowhere else since the challenge started.  I have considered something like this for years, but it’s been too hard to resist running to all the county hotspots chasing birds.  And, that’s if I’m even home during spring migration and not in Florida or Panama or China, all places I’ve been in April or May in past years.

So far, it’s been a combination of tedium and amazement.  I am learning a lot by birding my neighborhood every day and I realize how much I must miss in normal times.  One day, at least a dozen Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooped around the dam between two of our lakes.  Every other day, I have seen no more than two or three.  The day after the swallow extravaganza, the same area was occupied by a flock of about 40 Cedar Waxwings.  They stayed two days and then they were gone.  I have already found a new bird for the neighborhood list bringing it to 131 species – a Palm Warbler near the swallow/waxwing spot.  The list of discoveries goes on and on.  I have found four White-eyed Vireos, a bird that I had seen in my neighborhood only once before.  The story is similar with Blue-headed Vireo, Blue-winged Teal, and Field Sparrow.

Taking a rest from swooping around the lakes, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow poses on a neighbor's garden fence.

Taking a rest from swooping around the lakes, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow poses on a neighbor’s garden fence.

This hasn’t been just like the typical experience of birding my neighborhood only more often; it’s significantly different.  This is real patch birding.  Patch birding is described as regularly birding in a place close to home.  There are no hard and fast rules, but some suggest that the patch should be within a mile of your home; nearly everyone agrees that you should walk to your patch.  And, all descriptions of patch birding suggest birding your patch year round, at least once a week, preferably several times a week.  Previously, I birded in my neighborhood when I felt like it, which might have been a couple of times a week or it might have been weeks or even months between outings in my neighborhood beyond my yard.

It’s the every day habit that is making this an entirely new experience.  Concentrated birding in one small area is resulting in more than learning about the birds in my neighborhood.  I’m learning the rhythms of my patch, the microhabitats that certain species prefer, when the seasonal birds arrive.  I feel more intimacy with the birds.  Since I have a small area to cover, I have the luxury of just staring at a Yellow-rumped Warbler for 20 minutes if I feel like it.  I can soak it all in.  And, when I’m still, just watching and listening, new birds appear that I would normally miss.  Yesterday, I must have stared at the trees in my backyard for nearly half an hour (does this count as meditation?) before I saw a Black-and-white Warbler.  It wasn’t exciting like something rare, but those sweet quiet moments satisfy my soul.

White-eyed Vireos are easy to hear, but hard to photograph. But I'm happy when I can see the white eye.

White-eyed Vireos are easy to hear, but hard to photograph. But I’m happy when I can see the white eye.

The Yardbirds finished the first two-week stretch in second place.  The competition was tough and I’m proud of us and proud of my contributions to the team.  For the second stretch we have one new player on each team plus two entirely new teams.  The competition is heating up, but so is spring migration.  What will happen in the next two weeks?

If you missed Part 1, read it here.

The third life bird that I hoped to find in Florida was a La Sagra’s Flycatcher that was being seen in the Everglades. David’s ride on Monday was one of his shorter ones, so we had time to look for the flycatcher late that afternoon. We did not find the bird, but we still had a “bonus day” that we could use to look for it again. I wanted more than one more chance, though. You can never know how long a bird will stick around. And, this looked like my last chance to get a life bird in Florida.

David agreed to look for the La Sagra’s again on Tuesday morning before starting his long ride from Florida City to Marathon. But, we still couldn’t find our target. However, David did find the nest of the Red-shouldered Hawks that were being seen close by. And, both adults were snuggled together in the nest! Neither of us had ever seen this before.

Around 9:00 AM, Angel Abreu showed up with a friend who also wanted the La Sagra’s Flycatcher. Angel is not only one of the best birders in South Florida, he’s one of my favorite people in the world and I was very happy to see him. But, he didn’t find the bird right away either. After looking for another hour, we were in the car driving away when Angel excitedly flagged us down because he had the flycatcher! During the next hour, we had several excellent looks at our bird and heard it’s distinctive call. I was thrilled, but our wonderful morning meant that David didn’t start riding until noon that day.

Later, at Crocodile Lake NWR, I played hide-and-seek with a White-eyed Vireo for 20 minutes before giving up. These birds winter in Florida in high numbers, but they prefer not to be seen. I photographed a few butterflies instead. This female Julia Heliconian is a bit faded and tattered, but still beautiful.

David had a long day, but just before 6:00 PM, he achieved his goal of making it to Marathon – 78 miles on the bike!

We left Florida City early the next day and drove back to Marathon where David got on the bike for the final leg of his ride. I had nearly an hour before meeting David at his first rest stop, so I walked part of the Curry Hammock State Park Nature Trail that we had found the previous evening. I didn’t see anything unusual, but it was a pleasant way to start the day. I liked seeing this Spotted Sandpiper, pretty even in winter without its spots.

After meeting David with water and a snack, I walked along a paved path by the water on Big Pine Key and found a Broad-winged Hawk. These birds breed in my area and farther north, but this might have been the first Broad-wing that I’ve seen in winter in the US.

David made it to Key West by mid-afternoon. We were both elated that he had fulfilled his dream of doing this ride. I had a difficult time finding safe and legal parking near his end-point, Mile Marker 0, so I stayed with the car in the courthouse parking lot in a nice shady spot. David met me there and while he was changing into clean dry clothes, we saw a hawk flying overhead. We thought it was a Short-tailed Hawk and photos confirmed our identification. It was the third one of the trip, but the first one that I had ever found and identified without help from a more experienced birder, so a little goal of mine was accomplished, too.

We bought some souvenirs and headed over to Mallory Square. David enjoyed a celebratory beer and then we headed back to Florida City. We made a couple of quick stops on our way and found a Great White Heron in Sugarloaf Key just before dark. This is the white form of Great Blue Heron and it is considered to be the same species. It is rarely found outside Southern Florida and I had seen one only once or twice before.

We had not needed to use our “bonus day” for a weather emergency or injury, so we had a free day for birding. We spent the day in the Everglades National Park as we had hoped to do. We stopped at nearly every possible area as we worked our way towards Flamingo. David and I both love just watching birds “live their lives” as he puts it and seeing new behaviors. Our favorite experience that day was at Pahayokee Overlook observing a Great Egret bathe. In all our years in Florida, neither of us had ever seen a heron or egret take a bath before. I tried to get a video, but as soon as I hit “record,” the bird stopped splashing.

David got in a few miles on the bike in the park and we saw many more birds, especially at Mrazek Pond, where we both enjoyed helping visitors get on some of the harder to find birds. You had to know just where to look to see the Roseate Spoonbill that David found way in the back of the pond or the Green Heron hiding on one side.

The time to head back to Dunedin came all too soon. I would have loved a few more days in South Florida. We prolonged our nature watching for as long as possible by driving the Loop Road Scenic Drive off US 41 on the way home. It had been many years since I was there, but Sweetwater Strand was just as magical as I remembered. My favorite photo from that spot is this Great Blue Heron.

After the birding and biking adventure with David, I set off for Gainesville and some family time with my granddaughters and son-in-law. And, then it was on to Atlanta to see my step-daughter before finally driving home.

I find that long road trips are a lot easier if I take breaks, so I stop often to walk a little and look for birds. You might be surprised at what you can find at highway rest stops. At the “Welcome to Georgia” rest area, I was pleased to see this lovely little Yellow-throated Warbler. It looks like he (or she) is singing for tips, but actually it is just picking at the nut.

Later that day, I met another birder at a rest stop for the first time. We enjoyed talking about birds and watching a flock of about 30 Cedar Waxwings.

After I got home, I had one more bird to see – a Western Tanager that had shown up the day after I left for Florida. This is a western bird as its name implies, but there have been several vagrants in North Carolina this winter. This particular bird, though, was the first one seen in Forsyth County since 1987. Luck was with me this time and I saw the tanager after waiting less than an hour. With birds, you never know what you are going to miss and what you will see. That uncertainly is what makes birding both addicting and fun.

Read part two of David’s story on his blog in Bicycling Naples to Key West – Part 2.

David has dreamed of riding his bicycle to Key West for several years.  He explored several organized rides, but none of them felt right to him, so he asked me if I would SAG for him if he did a solo trip.  David is one of my best friends, so, of course, I said yes.  Plus, I might even get a life bird if I was lucky.  I hadn’t had a life bird in Florida since 2015, but typically a few rarities show up every winter in the southern part of the state, so I was hopeful.  In cycling terms, SAG means support and gear; I would drive David’s car along his bike route carrying food, water, tools and parts for minor bike repairs, extra clothing, etc.  We decided to start the cycling adventure in Naples Beach, travel east across US 41, and then drive/cycle down US 1 through the Keys.  To save money and give us a little flexibility, we would spend five nights in Florida City.

When I left home on February 10, there were three possible life birds that I could get, plus anything new that might show up.  I got a late start and spent the first night in southern Georgia.  The next morning, I headed towards Merritt Island NWR where a Great White Pelican had been regularly seen for a couple of weeks, including the previous day.  After I got on the road, I learned that Black Point Wildlife Drive, the spot where the pelican was most often seen, was closed for a controlled burn.  I arrived around noon and checked a few other locations where it was speculated that the bird could have gone.  I found a group of American White Pelicans at Haulover Creek, but not my target bird.

At the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center that afternoon, I was consoled by several beautiful Painted Buntings. It’s hard to be sad while watching these gorgeous birds. Below, the colorful male is on the left and the pretty yellow-green female on the right.

After the Visitor Center closed, I was looking at birds in the trees in the parking lot when I heard what I thought was a woodpecker, but I couldn’t find it. Finally, I discovered the source of the pecking sound – a male Northern Cardinal challenging his own reflection in the rear view window of my car! This behavior isn’t unusual, but I rarely see it.

The next morning, I went back to the Visitor Center to find out when the wildlife drive would open. “Noon,” they said, too late for me as I wanted to head to Dunedin to stay with David and Val that evening. Again, I birded in the parts of the refuge that were open and actually enjoyed it more than the previous day. I had given up on the pelican and just enjoyed what I did see.

Birds winter in this area in large numbers and I saw 50 species with my modest efforts on two short days – herons, egrets, ibises, shorebirds, ducks, and more. My favorite animal wasn’t a bird, though, but this adorable Hispid Cotton Rat under the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center feeders.  I was disappointed that I hadn’t found the pelican, but genuinely happy to see the rat, a life mammal.

I grew up in Pinellas County and I’ve visited so often the last few years that it feels like home. My favorite birding locations are Dunedin Causeway and Honeymoon Island State Park, so that’s where I headed on Thursday after arriving the previous afternoon. I had a great time at Honeymoon Island, but I couldn’t concentrate on birding because people were so friendly! Everyone wanted to talk, but I enjoyed the conversations, especially with a young couple who thanked me for being their “tour guide” after we watched a Gopher Tortoise together. It was a special treat to see this creature, a threatened species in Florida. Gopher Tortoises are important because they dig burrows deep in the sand that are used by over 350 other species including Burrowing Owl. Many of those species could not survive without the Gopher Tortoise. This particular tortoise is one of the largest that I’ve seen; note it’s smooth shell from years of burrowing in the sand.

In late winter, it’s always thrilling to observe the many Osprey at the height of courtship. Everywhere you look, Osprey are fishing, eating, calling, sitting near their mates (or intended), and soaring overhead. This male Osprey is enjoying lunch. Who can identify the fish by its distinctively shaped red tail? Please leave a comment if you know what it is.

I had one more day to go birding before David and I headed south, so I went to Dunedin Hammock City Park to look for the Short-tailed Hawks that had been reported there. I ran into a local birder who told me that the hawks had nested in the park since 2017. We went our separate ways and then ran into each other twice more. Just before we both needed to leave, he caught a glimpse through the trees of a hawk flying. We waited and it soared overhead for a minute, confirming its identify and allowing me to get a bad photo, but good enough for the local eBird reviewer to confirm my report.

This Snowy Egret at Dunedin Hammock was lovely in breeding plumage and much more cooperative than the Short-tailed Hawk.

I had enough time left that afternoon to find a Purple Gallinule (rare for Pinellas County) and then it was time to meet David after work and get ready for his big cycling adventure.

All we had to do on Saturday was drive to Naples to be in place for David’s start on Sunday morning, so we were able to do a little birding on our way down the Gulf Coast. Our first stop was at a place near Sarasota called “Celery Fields” by Florida birders. We had no idea what to expect and were surprised by the wonderful feeder area where we spent most of our time. We had great close looks at Common Ground Doves, a species that we have seen often, but never so well. A Brown-headed Cowbird is in the shadows behind the dove in the photo below.

Most fun, though, were the Nanday Parakeets, who swooped down into the feeder area and took all our attention. This is another species that we had seen before, but not this close. We found it interesting that the middle bird below was hanging by one foot with its head in the feeder port.

Below, a single Nanday Parakeet poses for a portrait photo.

We made another stop at Corkscrew Swamp, a favorite place of mine since I lived in Miami in the early 1980’s. Wood Storks were much less common then (they were assigned endangered status from 1984 to 2014). To see these birds, we had to drive across the state to Corkscrew which was the breeding ground for about half of the Southern Florida population then. Fortunately, they have had a good recovery and are now easy to see in many areas of Florida.

I had planned to look for the White-cheeked Pintail in Naples, which had been seen for weeks before I left North Carolina. But, by the time we got there, the duck had been missing for eight days, so we didn’t spend time looking. Yep, another lost opportunity for a life bird.

David started his ride from Naples Beach on Sunday morning. Our first two days across US 41 were rather tedious and I didn’t see many birds. But, I did enjoy birding the Shark Valley entrance road for an hour on Monday morning where I saw this Anhinga in the ditch drying its wings.

The trip would soon got more interesting for both of us. Watch for part 2. Read David’s story about this part of the trip in his blog post, Bicycling Naples to Key West – Part 1.

After breakfast and a little birding around Guayabo Lodge on the morning of December 12, we headed up a steep and mostly unpaved road towards Irazu Volcano.  We hoped to get a view down into the volcano crater and also see some high-elevation birds.  But when we reached the entrance to the national park, the cloud cover was so thick that we could barely see the road.  It didn’t make sense to spend time there, so we slowly started towards Savegre Hotel Natural Reserve & Spa in the Savegre Valley.

After a couple of quick stops for birding along the way, we arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon.  We were thrilled to see two Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers before we even checked in.

Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher

Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher

The accommodations on this trip were all excellent with Savegre Hotel being the best.  The only other place I’ve ever stayed on a birding trip that was as nice was Tiger Camp in India.  I quickly got settled in my room and then went out to meet Paul for a little pre-dinner birding.

Within minutes I had another life bird right outside my room, a Slaty Flowerpiercer.  These birds live on a diet of insects and nectar.  A flowerpiercer will perch on a branch or flower stalk and pierce the base of the flower with its hooked bill.  It then extracts the flower’s nectar with its tongue.  The bird “cheats” by obtaining sweet nectar without providing any pollination services to the plant.

Slaty Flowerpiercer

Slaty Flowerpiercer

After a wonderful dinner at the hotel restaurant, we headed back towards our rooms.  We were stopped in our tracks when we saw this gorgeous snake right in front of us.  Paul immediately knew that it was something rare and special, but all of us could see that it was incredibly beautiful.  After taking a few photos, I went on to my room.  Later I learned that it was rare and special indeed – a Talamancan Palm-pitviper which was just discovered in 2016.

Talamancan palm-pitviper, Bothriechis nubestris

Talamancan palm-pitviper, Bothriechis nubestris

The following morning we met our guide, Marino, shortly after 5:00 AM to look for Resplendent Quetzal.  We slowly drove down the road from the lodge and soon saw a large crowd.  Many cars were parked on the side of the road and birders were watching the trees with binoculars, scopes, and cameras.  Knowing that they must be watching a quetzal, we parked, too, and soon saw our target bird in the trees.  Marino had me follow him as he quickly moved from one spot to another to get the best views.  Over the next few minutes we saw a total of three Resplendent Quetzals – a very exciting start to the day.

We saw many birds with Marino that morning.  Some of my favorites were the Golden-browed Chlorophonias we watched in a little apple orchard.  We had good looks with the scope, but I wanted to get closer, so Marino climbed up the hill with me – carrying a heavy scope – and made sure that I got good looks and photos of the birds.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

We also saw a Scintillant Hummingbird on her nest, Sulphur-winged Parakeets, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Black-faced Solitaire, and too many others to list. The hotel grounds were beautiful and included this lovely pond and garden.

Garden at Savegre Hotel

Garden at Savegre Hotel

Lunch was at the famous Miriam’s Restaurant, a favorite with birders because of the amazing feeders behind the deck in addition to excellent food (especially the fresh mountain trout, which I had both days we ate there).  The next four photos were all taken at Miriam’s that day.

Scintillant Hummingbird

Scintillant Hummingbird

 

Flame-colored Tanager

Flame-colored Tanager

 

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

I counted six Acorn Woodpeckers at Miriam’s that day and could easily have missed some.  Everyone enjoyed watching these colorful woodpeckers with the clown face, but what really attracted attention was this little Hairy Woodpecker.  It appeared much smaller and darker than the birds we see at home.  There are 17 subspecies of Hairy Woodpecker with significant variation across their wide geographic range.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Next we went to Batsu Gardens, a favorite spot for photographers.  I shot the Silver-throated Tanager below at the area set up for photos.

Silver-throated Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager

I also photographed this Tennessee Warbler at that spot.  Although it’s a familiar bird that I see at home, this may be my favorite photo of the entire trip.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Tufted Flycatcher was one of the life birds that I got at Batsu Gardens.  There were two individuals and they could not have been more cooperative as they returned to their favorite perches time and again after sallying out for insects.

Tufted Flycatcher

Tufted Flycatcher

On our final full day, we started by heading to the mountain at the top of Savegre Valley, Cerro de la Muerte (“Hill of Death”).  Several species of birds can only be found in the paramo at the top above the tree line.  And, most of those birds are skulty and challenging to see, especially for me with my crappy vision.  So, I missed a couple of species, but with persistence and Paul’s help, I did finally get a look at a Peg-billed Finch.  No one has ever worked harder than Paul did to help me see difficult birds.  The Volcano Juncos were more numerous and cooperative.

Volcano Junco

Volcano Junco

It was back to Miriam’s for another fabulous trout lunch and more time at the magic feeders.

Talamanca Hummingbird

Talamanca Hummingbird

This afternoon we had two toucanets, one of my favorite birds.

Northern Emerald-Toucanet

Northern Emerald-Toucanet

The Yellow-thighed Brushfinch kindly showed off his thighs!

Yellow-thighed Brushfinch

Yellow-thighed Brushfinch

The most exciting moment was when a breathtaking male Resplendent Quetzal few in to the trees behind the feeder area.  We shared this wonderful experience with a few other birders who were there.  I enjoyed talking with Mike Canzoneri, an American living in Costa Rica, and I was standing beside him when we saw the quetzal.  Mike generously shared the photo that he took that afternoon and gave me his permission to use it in this post.

Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Mike Canzoneri.

Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Mike Canzoneri.

I could have stayed at Miriam’s forever, so when the others left to go shopping at a local indigenous craft store, I stayed for more birds.  I saw a few that I had not seen the previous day and also enjoyed better looks at some of the same birds.  You can actually see the big feet on the Large-footed Finch in this photo.

Large-footed Finch

Large-footed Finch

Finally, I had to say goodbye to Miriam’s and we started back to the hotel. We made a stop at another craft store; Paul and I birded instead of shopping.  We were rewarded with great looks at two Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, a bird that I had missed earlier and very much wanted to see.  This species can only be found in Costa Rica and western Panama.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

The next morning, December 15, it was time to head to the airport for our flights home.  What a trip!  Incredible scenery, birds, snakes and other wildlife, wonderful food and lodging, and excellent guiding – the Epic Nature Tours trip led by Paul and Amanda was a wonderful success.  I can’t wait to go back again!

Left to Right: Paul, Amanda, "Resplendent Quetzal", Diane, Shelley

Left to Right: Paul, Amanda, “Resplendent Quetzal”, Diane, Shelley

More of my photos can be seen in eBird Costa Rica 2019:

 

On December 9, we left our little spot of paradise on the Caribbean coast and started towards Yorkin where we would spend the night in the Bribri indigenous village, which can be reached only by boat.  We traveled up the Yorkin River in a long wooden dugout canoe with a motor assist piloted by Bribri men who were highly skilled in navigating the fast-flowing river.  It took about an hour for the travel up the rock-filled Yorkin River which runs along the border with Panama.

Traveling up the Yorkin River

Traveling up the Yorkin River

After we climbed up the riverbank trail, we were immersed in the culture of the Bribri people.  We would not have Internet or electricity for our nearly 24 hours there.  But, those things were not missed at all as we explored the grounds, ate simple meals, and learned all about chocolate and how to process it into an edible form.  The best part of the chocolate demonstration was the taste-testing at the end – absolutely delicious!  

Our home for the night

Our home for the night

The Bribri support their village mostly by farming bananas and cocoa, but they have also begun allowing visitors.  The added income from tourism is helping the village to be self-sufficient and maintain their traditional way of living.  

I particularly enjoyed the “pets” of the Bribri village – a Crested Guan and several parrots.  The guan was quite bold and even came into the thatched huts, where he was promptly shooed outside.

Crested Guan

Crested Guan

The parrots were quite tame and allowed me to get close for photos.

Red-lored Parrot

Red-lored Parrot

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Birding was not our main reason for visiting the Bribri village, but we did see birds. Perhaps most exciting were two Short-tailed Nighthawks flying around just before dark.  The time went quickly and after breakfast and a little birding around the village the next morning, it was time to head back to civilization.

The beautiful Yorkin River

The beautiful Yorkin River

On the way back, the boat suddenly stopped and the boatman pulled us over to one side of the river.  None of us had noticed it, but the sharp-eyed Bribri man had spied a Gray Hawk in a tree on the side of the river and he knew that we would want to see it.

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk

The afternoon brought our drive to Turrialba with a pleasant stop for lunch at Restaurante Mirador Sitio de Angostura where we had a nice meal and saw a few birds including the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and the Common Today-Flycatcher below. 

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

 

Common Today-Flycatcher

Common Today-Flycatcher

Later that afternoon, we arrived at Guayabo Lodge, where we would spend the next two nights.  The lodge was inviting and comfortable and the gardens surrounding it were beautiful and birdy.  I loved mornings at the lodge; we had coffee on the veranda while we watched birds.  The day after our arrival, we went to Guayabo National Monument.  My favorite bird of the morning was a female Golden-olive Woodpecker working on a nest.

Golden-olive Woodpecker (female)

Golden-olive Woodpecker (female)

That afternoon back at the lodge was one of my favorite times of the entire trip.  We casually birded the hotel grounds, sometimes together and sometimes drifting apart.  I enjoyed close-up looks at common birds like Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and Rufous-collared Sparrow as well as the less familiar Melodious Blackbird, Brown Jay, and Scarlet-rumped Tanager – all of which came to the fruit feeders.  One of my favorite birds that came to the feeder was this Barred Antshrike.

Barred Antshrike

Barred Antshrike

The Mistletoe Tyrannulet did not come to the feeders, but it was quite cooperative and I was happy to get my best looks ever at this species.

Mistletoe Tyrannulet

Mistletoe Tyrannulet

I was enjoying watching and photographing these accommodating birds so much that I stayed in the gardens when the others went for a hike to a nearby waterfall.  Suddenly, Paul came running back and breathlessly said, “Come quick, we’ve got a Laughing Falcon.”  Paul and I ran as fast as we could for the 200 or so meters back to where Amanda was still watching and photographing the falcon.  It was closer than any of us had ever dreamed we would see one.  It continued to stay a while longer, moving its head and looking around, but otherwise appearing relaxed.  We were all thrilled to see this gorgeous bird so close.

Laughing Falcon

Laughing Falcon

I fell asleep that night listening to a Common Pauraque calling outside my hotel window.  It was the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

Resplendent Quetzal is the species that most birders want to see on their first trip to Costa Rica.  And, why not?  It’s a gorgeous bird, among the most beautiful in the world.  But, I optimistically assumed that we would see the quetzal and put Sunbittern at the top of my most-wanted list.  It’s also an amazing bird which I had hoped to see in Panama in 2017, but the birding gods had not favored me with a sighting.  I won’t keep you in suspense – I was fortunate to see both the quetzal and the Sunbittern.  But, let’s start at the beginning.

Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal

I was not actively looking for a trip last fall, but Costa Rica had been on my mind.  When the Carolina Bird Club announced a trip with Amanda and Paul Laurent of Epic Nature Tours, I almost ignored it.  But, I didn’t ignore it; I called to ask about the trip.  Amanda told me that due to quirks of scheduling only one couple was signed up, but they would run the trip regardless of the number of participants.  Because of poor vision, I struggle in large groups, so I quickly decided that this was a unique opportunity.  It would be worth the stress of squeezing it into my schedule between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I flew to San Jose on December 4.  Paul and Amanda met me and the other participants, Diane and Gary, at the airport and whisked us off for a meal before checking into our hotel.  Our first new birds were right in the hotel parking lot – Hoffmann’s Woodpecker and a cute little Rufous-naped Wren.

Rufous-naped Wren

Rufous-naped Wren

The following morning we were on our way towards Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast where we would spend the next four nights.  We arrived at Congo Bongo Ecolodge mid-afternoon after several birding stops and lunch along our drive from San Jose.  The lodge has nice trails, including one that leads right to the beach, where we headed after settling in our rooms.  It was a lovely spot and it had birds, including my most-wanted shorebird, Collared Plover, a life bird for me.

Collared Plover

Collared Plover

December isn’t officially the rainy season, but it rained anyway.  Paul and Amanda were quick to adjust our schedule day by day and it didn’t feel like we missed a thing.  The lodge was so lovely that I think we all actually enjoyed having a little more time there due to a couple of rainy mornings.

Amanda making breakfast for us in our open-air kitchen

Amanda making breakfast for us in our open-air kitchen

Our bedrooms were at each end of the house and the kitchen, an eating area, and hammocks were in the large open-air middle part.  Even without nets, we had no bugs.  It was truly a tropical paradise!

The patio on the other side of our house

The patio on the other side of our house

Eyelash Viper

Eyelash Viper

On our first full day we went to Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw birds, but the highlight was an Eyelash Viper, which gets its name from the enlarged scales over its eyes.

Eyelash Vipers are one of the smallest venomous species in Central America, reaching only 22-32 inches (females are larger than males).  These nocturnal pit vipers live in trees and palms and are not usually aggressive towards humans unless threatened.  They come in a wide variety of colors; ours was a beautiful yellow/gold.

Also in yellow was this Gray-capped Flycatcher, another life bird for me, that we saw on one of our stops near Manzanillo.

Gray-capped Flycatcher

Gray-capped Flycatcher

The next day we spent the morning kayaking on the Punta Uva River.  The river was beautiful with thick vegetation of both sides and we saw quite a bit of wildlife.

Black River Turtles

Black River Turtles

I photographed this caiman on our journey up the river.  Later, when we passed by again on our way back, it didn’t appear as if it had moved an inch.

Spectacled Caiman

Spectacled Caiman

We paddled as far upriver as it was passable, and then Paul and Abel, our local guide, knowing how much I wanted to see a Sunbittern, walked a ways into the rainforest with me following a small stream in hopes of finding our target bird.  This location was the only one in our itinerary where we had a realistic chance of finding the sought-after bird so we wanted to try as hard as possible to find one.  Our quest was unsuccessful, so we abandoned our hopes and started back down the river.  We paddled a short distance and then suddenly, magically, two Sunbitterns appeared right in front of us!

Sunbittern

Sunbittern

That afternoon we visited the Ara Project, now Ara Manzanillo, a conservation initiative working to save the endangered Great Green Macaw from extinction.  We were thrilled to watch 35 to 40 macaws enjoy their afternoon feeding.

Great Green Macaws

Great Green Macaws

On our last full day on the Caribbean Coast, we had a long 7-hour walk at Cahuita National Park.  Like other areas near the coast, the park was teeming with wildlife.  We saw so many “lizards” that I couldn’t keep up with all of them.  This Emerald Basilisk was especially accommodating about a photo op.

Emerald Basilisk

Emerald Basilisk

One of my favorite creatures was this big gorgeous spider.  This one, Orange Rusty Wandering Spider, is harmless, but it is sometimes confused with Brazilian Wandering Spider, the world’s most toxic and dangerous spider.  Fortunately, Paul is not only an expert birder, but also an expert on spiders, snakes, and lizards.

Orange Rusty Wandering Spider, Cupiennius getazi

Orange Rusty Wandering Spider, Cupiennius getazi

There were pretty flowers in the rainforest, too.

Swamp Lily, Crinum erubescens

Swamp Lily, Crinum erubescens

And, of course, we saw birds.  The avian highlight for me was an American Pygmy Kingfisher.  The others had a brief look at one, but I missed it.  Abel patiently waited with me for the bird to reappear while the rest of our group walked on.  We were rewarded with an extremely cooperative female who put on quite a show for us flying back and forth, but also sitting still for photos.

American Pygmy Kingfisher

American Pygmy Kingfisher

Near the end of our walk, we encountered a large group of white-faced Capuchin monkeys.  Capuchins are highly intelligent animals known for their ability to use tools.  The only other primates that use tools are chimpanzees and orangutans (and humans, of course).  Fascinated, we watched for quite a while, especially enjoying the young monkeys playing, but the little ones didn’t hold still for photos.

White-faced Capuchin Monkey

White-faced Capuchin Monkey

We had a quick stop on our way back to the lodge for a Northern Jacana on the side of the road and then our wonderful day was done except for dinner. This was also the end of our time on the Caribbean coast as we would check out of Congo Bongo and head to the Bribri indigenous community in the morning.

Our group (minus Amanda). Left to right: Gary, Abel, Paul, Shelley, Diane.

Our group (minus Amanda). Left to right: Gary, Abel, Paul, Shelley, Diane.

On Sunday morning, August 18, Derek started home, David set off on the first ride of Cycle Adirondacks‘ Ultimate Cycling Vacation, and I headed out to see if I could find any birds.  I went to Crown Point State Historic Site, about 12 miles north of Ticonderoga.  I enjoyed walking around this lovely spot on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Champlain.  The birds like this spot, too, especially the gulls.

Ring-billed Gulls

Ring-billed Gulls

I drove over the Lake Champlain bridge and walked around Chimney Point on the Vermont side.  I enjoyed watching an Osprey’s hovering flight over the lake before it plunged down to catch a fish.  Osprey are the largest birds that are able to hover.

A poor photo of an amazing Osprey hovering over Lake Champlain

A poor photo of an amazing Osprey hovering over Lake Champlain

I found a few other birds along the shore and this chipmunk that did his best chirping impression of a bird.

A chipmunk who's chirping almost fooled me

A chipmunk who’s chirping almost fooled me

David rode 66.7 miles with 4130’ of climbing on the local Ticonderoga ride.  The trip was going so fast that I can’t remember what we did that afternoon.  Could we both have been a bit tired by then?

On Monday David rode to Wilmington and I drove to Bloomingdale Bog before turning towards Wilmington.  I was becoming obsessed with the bog and I hoped to find Black-backed Woodpeckers on my own.  I found only Canada Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, and other species that we had seen there previously, but I enjoyed my morning.

David’s ride to Wilmington was 61.4 miles, but we had both recovered a bit so in the afternoon we drove up Veterans’ Memorial Highway to the top of Whiteface Mountain, New York’s fifth-highest peak at 4,867 feet.  The mountain’s east slope hosted the alpine skiing competitions of the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.  Whiteface Mountain is also the easiest place to see the rare Bicknell’s Thrush anywhere in it’s small range in the northeast, but by August the birds are nearly impossible to find.  I hope to return in June one year for a better chance to see this lovely thrush.

By Richard Crossley - Richard Crossley, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Richard Crossley – Richard Crossley, CC BY-SA 3.0

The drive up the mountain was beautiful and provided fantastic views of the surrounding area in the afternoon light.  At the top, we had sandwiches and beer and David hiked to the top of the mountain.  It was cold and windy; I was a wimp and waited in the gift shop.

David enjoys the view from a a stop on Whiteface Mountain

David enjoys the view from a a stop on Whiteface Mountain

Another scenic view from the road up Whiteface Mountain

Another scenic view from the road up Whiteface Mountain

On Tuesday morning I returned to Bloomingdale Bog for one last time and David rode the long loop out of Wilmington.  That afternoon we visited High Falls Gorge.  After viewing the gorge and waterfalls, I somewhat foolishly suggested that we walk the “nature trail” which turned out to be a one-mile “moderate” hike over large rocks and tree roots that was somewhat steep.  We were tired that night!

The beautiful waterfall at High Falls Gorge

The beautiful waterfall at High Falls Gorge

The walkways at High Falls Gorge were beautifully done to be safe and provide wonderful views

The walkways at High Falls Gorge were beautifully done to be safe and provide wonderful views

Day four of the Ultimate Cycling Vacation, August 21, brought the ride from Wilmington to Westport, on the shore of Lake Champlain.  We loved Wilmington and hated to leave, but we also looked forward to the next phase of our adventure.  My birding focus shifted to looking for Little Gull at Noblewood Park again, half an hour north of Westport.  Derek and I had tried a week earlier without success, but there were three eBird reports from August 20 and I was hopeful that I would find the gull.

Cycle ADK's base camp for Westport was the Essex County fairgrounds, where some of the "art" for the fair was still on display

Cycle ADK’s base camp for Westport was the Essex County fairgrounds, where some of the “art” for the fair was still on display

I arrived at the park just after 9:00 AM and don’t recall seeing another birder although there is an eBird report from 7:30 AM that morning (without the target gull).  It was cold and windy and miserable and I did not find a Little Gull.  Reports use the phrases “searched the flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls for two hours” and “obvious” in the same report, which I found quite funny.  So, theoretically I could have seen a Little Gull and just not recognized it, but I don’t think that happened.  After talking with local experts and pouring over photos during the next few days, the gull started to feel familiar, but still elusive.

Looking for a Little Gull in flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls with a few Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Caspian Terns, and Common Terns

Looking for a Little Gull in flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls with a few Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Caspian Terns, and Common Terns

David’s day brought “interesting” events, too.  He blew his rear tire fifteen miles into the ride.  Fortunately, he was going slow at the time and was not injured.  Cycle Adirondacks gave him a ride to the next rest stop nine miles away and a new tire.  He lost an hour and a half, but was then back on the road for the ride to Westport in pouring rain for the next forty miles.

David's rides took him past numerous waterfalls

David’s rides took him past numerous waterfalls

The next morning I arrived at Noblewood Park at 8:00 AM and found three birders already there.  Stacy had arrived at 7:00 AM and had seen a Little Gull before I got there.  She was not only an expert birder, but very friendly and she tried really hard to help me find the gull.  Unfortunately, the gull did not cooperate.  Stacy had also seen two Baird’s Sandpipers the previous day and she gave me explicit directions for where to find them.  Although not a life bird, this species was another of my targets for the trip because I had only seen them a few times and never well.

I drove about an hour south to Port Henry and immediately found the sandpipers exactly where Stacy said they would be.  The next half hour was a welcome relief – gorgeous weather, no pressure, and cooperative birds.  Here is the little video that I shot from about 12-15 feet from one of the Baird’s Sanpipers.

David’s loop ride took him to Essex, just three miles south of Noblewood Park where I had gone birding, and a ferry ride across Lake Champlain.  After riding 35 miles through Vermont countryside, he rode back into New York over the lovely Lake Champlain bridge where I had birded a few days earlier.  It was the longest ride of the event at 75 miles, 6:58 hours (including the half hour ferry ride) and 4,708 feet of climbing.

David's ride through Vermont took him past miles of beautiful countryside

David’s ride through Vermont took him past miles of beautiful countryside

Friday was David’s last day of the Ultimate Cycling Vacation as the group rode from Westport back to the starting point in Ticonderoga.  I had one last chance to try for Little Gull at Noblewood Park and I was the first to arrive at 8:00 AM.  Other birders started arriving half an hour later and Matt from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology got there at 9:24 AM.  None of us were able to find a Little Gull despite five sets of eyes rigorously searching.  I left at 10:26 AM, assuming that if we had not found the bird by then, it would not be seen that day, especially since earlier reports were mostly from early morning.  And, I wanted to be back in Ticonderoga when David finished his ride.

Cedar Waxwings were common at Noblewood Park and nearly everywhere else during the trip

Cedar Waxwings were common at Noblewood Park and nearly everywhere else during the trip

I met David and sat down to eat a hamburger.  Five minutes later, a message popped up on my phone.  It was Stacy, “Matt says you left the park and he has an adult Little Gull now.”  I involuntary uttered “Oh, s***!” causing people nearby to turn and stare at me.  But, David immediately knew that meant the bird had been found.  He just said “Let’s go.”  Fortunately, we were able to think clearly and make plans.  There would be no time to check into the hotel.  So, we managed to get the bike and the bike bag into my overstuffed car in record time and I started driving north.  We made just one quick stop at Gunnison’s Bakery.  While David was changing out of his sweaty, wet cycling clothes, I bought a small strawberry-rhubarb pie, optimistically intending it to be the “lifer pie” we would use to celebrate the Little Gull that I was sure to see.  Back in the car, I learned that I could drive the speed limit after all.  Earlier I had said there was no way to safely drive 55 MPH on the twisting, hilly county road.

Matt had not been able to stay, but he had texted a very detailed description of the bird and where he had seen it.  We started scoping, but could not find it.  After four hours of searching with just one short break, we never did find Matt’s Little Gull.  As we ate “loser pie” that evening, I realized that I still have a great story; only the ending is different from the one I would have liked.  And, now I feel like a real birder; I finally have a nemesis bird.

Pickerel or Leopard Frog? David saw where it hopped as we walked through the weeds on the way back to the car at Noblewood Park.

Pickerel or Leopard Frog? David saw where it hopped as we walked through the weeds on the way back to the car at Noblewood Park.

To read more about David’s cycling adventure, see his blog post Cycle Adirondacks “Ultimate Cycling Vacation” 2019.