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Early October is usually good for migration here in Forsyth County, North Carolina, and this year was no exception. The third 3-week stretch of the fall Yard Squad Challenge went from October 5 to 25.  I am happy that I found 14 new birds during that time.  The first day started with one of my favorite migrants right on my deck – Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

A few days later, I found a bird that made me even happier.  It was one of those days that I didn’t get out until after 2:00 PM, so I headed to the Walnut Bottoms trail which is short, flat, and easy.  I wandered along the fence row and saw a pretty Cape May Warbler.  Next, I headed to the back corner where I found both male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers, a new bird for my team, Yardbirds Remastered.  Surprisingly, I did not see any of these lovely birds in my yard this fall as I usually do.

A Cape May Warbler in the late afternoon light at Walnut Bottoms

A Cape May Warbler in the late afternoon light at Walnut Bottoms

I intended a short walk, but something kept calling me to stay.  After I had already been there for three hours, I started following a big flock of Common Grackles in hopes of getting a good photo of one.  Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but I’m inspired by a local birder who was photographing American Robins in her yard a few years ago when she found a Henslow’s Sparrow.  The grackles led me through the woods and back out into one of the fields where I spotted a flycatcher on a power pole guy-wire.  I’m the opposite of those birders who turn common birds into rarities.  When I see a small flycatcher, I usually figure it’s an Eastern Wood-Pewee or at best an Acadian Flycatcher.  This day something told me to get a photo of the bird.  So, in the last light of the day, I worked hard to get the photo below which was good enough to confirm this bird as a Least Flycatcher.  They are not common birds here, yet every serious birder in the county except me had managed to see one.  I was thrilled to finally add it to my Forsyth County list and especially proud of finding it myself.

Least Flycatcher at Walnut Bottoms - a new county bird for me!

Least Flycatcher at Walnut Bottoms – a new county bird for me!

The next day, October 9, was the best day of fall in my yard.  I enjoyed sitting on my deck and watching the action in the Devil’s Walking Sticks which were loaded with berries.  In less than an hour, I observed four Cardinals, a Parula, a Scarlet Tanager, and two Swainson’s Thrushes feasting on the berries.

A Swainson's Thrush in the Aralia spinosa, Devil's Walking Stick

A Swainson’s Thrush in the Aralia spinosa, Devil’s Walking Stick

This Scarlet Tanager was also eating Aralia spinosa berries, but it popped out in the open for a photo.

This Scarlet Tanager was also eating Aralia spinosa berries, but it popped out in the open for a photo.

I continued to find nice birds for my Yard Squad circle, but nothing new for the Yardbirds.  With two other team members in the East (Ohio and Florida), we had a lot of overlap in species.  At Long Creek Park, I found my first Pine Siskins on October 16.  It’s an irruption year that some are calling the invasion of the Siskins.  A few days after I took this photo, birders around the state started reporting dozens of these birds at their feeders.  A couple of people reported hundreds of Siskins.  People are joking about second mortgages and 401K withdrawals to finance enough bird seed to keep these greedy little things happy.  If you are not familiar with avian irruptions, you can read about the phenomenon here.  See the Winter Finch Forecast for current predictions.

A Pine Siskin at Long Creek Park

A Pine Siskin at Long Creek Park

Swamp Sparrow at Long Creek Park

Swamp Sparrow at Long Creek Park

I also found a really interesting thrush at Long Creek Park on October 17th.  I am calling it a Hermit Thrush, but it was a difficult ID even for the expert birders who advised me.  It alternately looked like a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a Swainson’s Thrush, and a Hermit Thrush depending upon the light.  Adding to the difficulty of the ID was the timing; migrating Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes were still around and Hermit Thrushes were just arriving for the winter.

A newly-arrived Hermit Thrush enjoying wild grapes at Long Creek Park

A newly-arrived Hermit Thrush enjoying wild grapes at Long Creek Park

Here’s a bird that can’t be mistaken for anything else, an Eastern Bluebird.

Eastern Bluebird at Long Creek Park

Eastern Bluebird at Long Creek Park

My heart has a soft spot for Hairy Woodpeckers, so I was thrilled to see this female come to my yard for a visit.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when I took this photo – across the kitchen, through two panes of glass, and on far side of the deck.

Hairy Woodpecker on my deck

Hairy Woodpecker on my deck

As we headed into the last week of the competition, there were three birds that I needed to find for my team – Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, and Purple Finch.  Winter Wren was the only one of these that I was sure I could find.  Several other birders had seen Blue-headed Vireos at Long Creek Park, but I tried three days before I could find one.  But, what great luck I finally had!  Blue-headed Vireos seem curious and sweet; they are my favorite vireo.  None of the other vireos come close to check you out and then go about their business of foraging just over your head.

Blue-headed Vireo at Long Creek Park

Blue-headed Vireo at Long Creek Park

The next morning, I headed to Walnut Bottoms where I was hoping to find a Winter Wren.  I walked a short way down the trail to Muddy Creek and played the call.  Like a shot, a wren flew up from the creek bed and landed ten feet in front of me.  Success!  I watched it for a few minutes and then continued on the trail to the first open field where I quickly found a Purple Finch feeding in the weeds.

Purple Finch at Walnut Bottoms. This is likely a female, but it's nearly impossible to distinguish the females from first year males.

Purple Finch at Walnut Bottoms. This is likely a female, but it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the females from first year males.

Now I could relax!  I had successfully found my targets and could just enjoy birding for the last few days of the challenge.  The Purple Finch was the 100th bird that I observed during the fall Yard Squad Challenge in my 1-mile circle.  Forty-one of those birds added to the tally for my team, Yardbirds Remastered.  We ended with an impressive 479 species, but the competition was fierce so that put us in position 5 of 7 teams.

Eastern Box Turtle at Walnut Bottoms

Eastern Box Turtle at Walnut Bottoms

For the iNaturalist part of the competition we came in right in the middle of the pack at 4th place with 446 species of non-avian observations.  With 151 species, I was the iNat leader for my team.  The iNat competition renewed my interest in moths.  I found about a dozen species that I’d never seen before.  I also found that I enjoyed butterflies and found two “lifers”, Dun Skipper and Little Yellow.  Some of the other insects were interesting, too.  Did you know that there really is a living thing called a conehead?  Yep, and I found two different species of them at my moth lights.

Here are a few of the “leps” (lepidoptera – butterflies and moths) from the last stretch that I especially liked.

Fiery Skipper

Fiery Skipper

American Lady

American Lady

Common Checkered-Skipper

Common Checkered-Skipper

Long-tailed Skipper

Long-tailed Skipper

And, that’s a wrap for the fall Yard Squad Challenge.  Credit goes to Matt Smith for creating, hosting, and managing the game.  And, thanks to Joost Brandsma for leading the Yardbirds Remastered.  It was great fun and my obsession with the game gave me an excuse to put off cleaning and decluttering my house for two more months.  You can find more of my photos on eBird (contributor Shelley Rutkin) or iNaturalist (user shelleydee).

 

The middle stretch of the fall Yard Squad Challenge was similar to the middle weeks of the spring challenge.  Other birders always seemed to find the migrants before I did.  With a larger patch to bird, though, it was easier to catch up.  I missed a few birds that I would like to have seen, but I found 16 new species in this three-week period.  That put my total number of birds for the challenge at 86, exactly what Matt’s magic formula predicted that I should be able to find.  Every new species now added to my list will be “above par”, so I’m happy.

So, what were those 16 new birds?  This isn’t one of the them because I first saw it on September 8 (this middle stretch started on September 14), but this sweet little bird stayed for over a week.  I was able to see it again on the 15th and even get a photo.  Kentucky Warbler is not a common species for my county, so it was a real thrill to see this lovely bird twice.

Kentucky Warbler at Bethania's Walnut Bottoms

Kentucky Warbler at Bethania’s Walnut Bottoms

New birds that I did see included Red-tailed Hawk and Song Sparrow.  What?  Those are common birds.  I’m learning that even species that are present year-round can be much easier to find some weeks than others.  Song Sparrows breed in my county, but they are quiet during the summer.  Species like the sparrow and Brown Thrashers are much easier to find once they start foraging in fall when abundant natural food is everywhere.

A Wood Thrush on the path at Walnut Bottoms was a welcome sight and a new species for the Yardbirds.  I had feared that I wouldn’t be able to find one without hearing their beautiful song.

I was also happy to see Osprey and Great Egret and add them to the growing list for my circle.  Neither were new for the Yardbirds, but they add to our total ticks.  The egret was a real surprise as this is another species that isn’t common in my county.  We usually have a few somewhere, but this was only the third time that I’ve seen one at this pond.

Great Egret at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

Great Egret at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been more common this fall than they were in the spring.  The males aren’t sporting their snazzy black, white, and rose attire now, but I think they are beautiful birds irregardless.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at Lake Hills Pond & Marsh

I continued to enjoy the non-avian iNaturalist part of the challenge and added an Eastern Chipmunk.  I remember feeling excited about living in a part of the county that has chipmunks when I moved to North Carolina.  I didn’t realize how quickly I would get tired of the evil little things who eat all the bird food and just laugh at me.  See if you learn anything new about chipmunks in this story, NOT Alvin and the Chipmunks: 10 Facts You May Not Know about the Real Rodents.  Did you note the part about eating bird eggs and nestlings?  Yep, I hate these little monsters.  It’s hard to deny that they are cute, though.

Eastern Chipmunk on my deck

Eastern Chipmunk on my deck

Here are a few more of my iNat observations during this period.  If you want to see my other sightings, you can find me on iNat with username shelleydee.

This was a new moth for my yard and one of my favorites, Orange-shouldered Sherbet Moth.  Its wings were translucent and a photo can't really capture its delicate beauty.

This was a new moth for my yard and one of my favorites, Orange-shouldered Sherbet Moth.  Its wings were translucent and a photo can’t really capture its delicate beauty.

 

I didn't get any more life butterflies, but this Variegated Fritillary was a new iNat observation for me.

I didn’t get any more life butterflies, but this Variegated Fritillary was a new iNat observation for me.

 

An American Toad surprised us when I was birding with friends at Walnut Bottoms. They are difficult to distinguish from the similar Fowler's Toad which also occurs here. Experts in a Facebook group helped with the ID.

An American Toad surprised us when I was birding with friends at Walnut Bottoms. They are difficult to distinguish from the similar Fowler’s Toad which also occurs here. Experts in a Facebook group helped with the ID.

Participating in iNat led to more than wildlife sightings; it also gave me a new friend.  Linda saw some of my observations and contacted me.  We discovered that we had much in common and went for a walk together at Long Creek Park.  We had a great time and spent over four hours surveying the park for interesting flora and fauna.  Linda is a better nature watcher than I am and her sharp eye caught this skink.

Common Five-lined Skink or Southeastern Five-lined Skink? I don't think it's possible to determine from this photo.

Common Five-lined Skink or Southeastern Five-lined Skink? I don’t think it’s possible to determine from this photo.

Another of my favorite sightings with Linda was a small clump of ferns.  I was surprised that in September they still looked fresh and perfect.

Broad beech fern at Long Creek Park

Broad beech fern at Long Creek Park

I still love birds best and even the young Northern Cardinals on my deck made me happy.  I’ve watched these two girls and a young male nearly every day.

Immature female Northern Cardinals

Immature female Northern Cardinals

This Yellow-billed Cuckoo also made me very happy.  It’s always fun to watch them successfully forage for caterpillars.  I watched this one while birding with friends at Walnut Bottoms.  Like its name implies, this is a spot with many black walnut trees which seem to host a lot of caterpillars.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with an unidentified caterpillar

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with an unidentified caterpillar

During the last three days of this stretch I was able to find a new bird for my team every day.  On October 2, a sweet little group of at least three Tennessee Warblers foraged in the weeds at the edge of a large field at Long Creek Park.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

A Hooded Warbler at Walnut Bottoms was new on October 3.  And, finally, on the last day of this stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge, October 4, I found nothing new in my 3-1/2 hours of birding in the morning.  As I sat on my deck that afternoon, a Cape May Warbler came by and spent a few minutes checking out the seeds on the deck rail and the suet in a little cup.  I had foolishly not taken my camera on the deck, so here is a photo of another Cape May Warbler that stopped by for a bath a few years ago.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

There are not many new birds that I can find in the last stretch of the challenge, but I do expect to see a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  Follow along with me and see if I’m successful.

Fall is rapidly approaching, but sadly the Coronavirus is not retreating.  Many people are still social-distancing and staying near home.  So, what does that mean?  It means that the amazing Matt Smith has brought back the Yard Squad Challenge for a Fall Edition.  It’s similar to the spring competition in that we have teams of players from around the globe – seven teams of ten players each.  But instead of limiting each player to their neighborhood patch, each of us were allowed to define a circle with a radius up to five miles.  Instead of the snake draft, Matt queried eBird data and threw it all in the Magic Hat which created teams each having the same number of potential species (470).  Bonus points will be earned with iNaturalist observations of everything except birds.

Butterflies provided some easy iNat bonus points. Great Spangled Fritillary on Ironweed.

Butterflies provided some easy iNat bonus points. Great Spangled Fritillary on Ironweed.

I am on Joost Brandsma’s team again, Yardbirds Remastered.  We have two players in England, one in Alaska, and seven of us scattered around the lower 48 states.  I choose the smallest possible circle with only a one-mile radius, but it includes my two favorite birding hotspots in addition to my neighborhood.  I figured that a larger circle would simply increase my “par” list without significantly increasing my chances of finding additional birds.  My list of potential birds has 86 species, which seems achievable since I found 83 species in the spring competition without even leaving my neighborhood.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Even though my circle is rather small, it doesn’t have the patch feel of the spring competition.  As much fun as that was, I’m happy to have a little more variety.  We started on August 24 and this first stretch (of three total) ended on September 13.  I have birded every day, sometimes more than once.  I also created my brand new iNaturalist account a couple of days before the start of the Yard Squad Challenge.  I had been resisting the urge to “moth” again this year because of the time suck, but now I had to do it for the iNat bonus points.  I enjoyed it as much as ever and was pleasantly surprised that I found several new species of moths.  In my post Summer Nights a few years ago, I described the wonderful peaceful feeling of nighttime on my deck.

A lovely Showy Urola moth with wings that look like satin.

A lovely Showy Urola moth with wings that look like satin.

I haven’t seen a single rare or unexpected bird yet, but with close observation, I find that I am always learning something new.  I was pleased to get a clear image of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but didn’t realize how patchy her feathers were until I looked at the photo.  I mistakenly assumed that it was either a juvenile or sick bird, so I posted the photo to my state birding group on Facebook to learn more.  An expert hummingbird bander told me that it was an adult female in molt and that most of the females they band at this time of year look like this!  I hope she grows new feathers quickly to be in peak condition for her migration south in a few weeks.

Adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’d like to think that I always pay attention to flora and fauna, but iNat certainly heightened my alertness.  An interesting find was this lichen in the woods near my house.

How had I never noticed this before? Tentatively identified as Gray Reindeer Lichen.

How had I never noticed this before? Tentatively identified as Gray Reindeer Lichen.

And, just as in this post, my attention quickly shifted between plants, birds, butterflies, and other insects as interesting things constantly caught my eye during  my outings.  Birding has been a bit slower than usual this fall, but I never got bored and always came home with a new iNat observation even when I didn’t find a new avian species for the Yard Squad Challenge.  Here are a few of my sightings.

A beautiful Monarch is always nice to see.

A beautiful Monarch is always nice to see.

 

This Dun Skipper was a "lifer" for me.

This Dun Skipper was a “lifer” for me.

 

Eastern Towhees are common birds in my circle.  This female was accommodating and came to my pishing for a photo.

Eastern Towhees are common birds in my circle.  This female was accommodating and came to my pishing for a photo.

 

White-eyed Vireos have been more numerous than ever this year.  And, they are still singing which makes them easy to find them.

White-eyed Vireos have been more numerous than ever this year.  And, they are still singing which makes them easy to find them.

 

Widow Skimmers are a common dragonfly in my area.

Widow Skimmers are a common dragonfly in my area.

 

As a young girl, I played with grasshoppers and I still like them. This one is a Differential Grasshopper, identified by the black chevrons on its "thighs."

As a young girl, I played with grasshoppers and I still like them. This one is a Differential Grasshopper, identified by the black chevrons on its “thighs.”

 

Cicadas, however, are on the short list of insects that I do not like.  I’ve been told that they don’t bite or sting, but they still look evil and freak me out.  

Cicadas, however, are on the short list of insects that I do not like.  I’ve been told that they don’t bite or sting, but they still look evil and freak me out.

 

I'll end with this sweet little fawn that I saw on a misty gray day. White-tailed Deer.

I’ll end with this sweet little fawn that I saw on a misty gray day. White-tailed Deer.

I found 70 species of birds in the first three-week stretch of the Yard Squad Challenge.  The height of migration for my area will be the next three weeks, so I should find new species.  There are several large clumps of Devil’s Walking Stick berries in my backyard that are nearly ripe.  They are always a favorite of tanagers and warblers.  Who will make is easy by just appearing on my deck?

Last summer, my time in New York ended with 93 species on my state list and I wanted to get that number to 100.  Derek and I decided to go for it when I discovered that you can get to Staten Island without driving through Manhattan.  Our destination on Tuesday, July 14, was Wolfe’s Pond Park, less than three hours away, which had a species list in eBird making it appear that I could get seven new birds without even trying.  We should have known that nothing would be easy in the hot July weather, but we did accomplish our goal.  I now have 102 species of birds for my New York list, including the birds in the two photos below.

Mute Swan at Staten Island's Wolfe's Pond Park

Mute Swan at Staten Island’s Wolfe’s Pond Park

I’ve never liked Mute Swans.  They are non-native and aggressive towards our native waterfowl.  This particular swan, though, appeared to have become gentle and tame due to handouts from picnickers at the park.  This Snowy Egret had more self-respect and flew every time we got near, making me work to get a decent photo.

Snowy Egret at Wolfe's Pond Park

Snowy Egret at Wolfe’s Pond Park

We alternated big days and easier days, so it was off to nearby District of Columbia on Wednesday.  Derek has assured me that birders who care about lists consider it the same as a state and he wanted to see me get to 50 species.  We saw several birds at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens that were still on their wintering grounds when we visited the park on my visit in April 2019.  My favorite was this Green Heron, a species that I’ve seen many times.  However, I’ve never been closer and I couldn’t take my eyes off this bird as he stalked his prey and didn’t seem to care at all about our presence.

Green Heron at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Green Heron at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

The gardens at Kenilworth are very pretty.  There were more visitors here than most of the places that we visited, but we felt safe.  We were impressed by the consideration and social-distancing displayed by park visitors.  Everywhere in DC people seemed to take appropriate actions to stay safe from the spread of coronavirus.  Many wore masks outside and we even saw young children wearing masks.

Derek at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Derek at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in New Jersey had a lot of birds that I wanted to see – Gull-billed Tern, Willet, Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows – and I was excited about our visit there, but we had been putting it off waiting for the right day.  We were rewarded for our patience.  The daily temps had been hitting the high 80’s, but a high of 77 was forecast for Thursday, so we took advantage of the break from the heat and spent several hours at Forsythe NWR.  Flies bit us again, as at Bombay Hook, but otherwise the day was perfect.

One of two beautiful American Avocets at Forsythe NWR, flagged by eBird as rare

One of two beautiful American Avocets at Forsythe NWR, flagged by eBird as rare

I have seen hundreds of Willets, but this species has both a western and an eastern subspecies.  It’s expected that they will be split into two separate species sometime in the next few years.  Western Willets winter in Florida and on the East Coast and can arrive as early as June, so I did not have a single sighting that I could be absolutely certain was an Eastern Willet.  My quest was finally accomplished at Forsythe NWR where Eastern Willets breed in the saltmarsh.

Eastern Willets

Eastern Willets

We saw several species of terns – Gull-billed, Least, Caspian, Common, and Forster’s.

Common Tern

Common Tern

Black Skimmers are in the same family as gulls and terns, but their feeding style is distinct.  These graceful birds fly low over the water and literally skim the surface with their long lower mandible.  When it strikes a small fish, the upper mandible snaps shut, capturing the fish.

Black Skimmer, one of the world's three skimmer species

Black Skimmer, one of the world’s three skimmer species

Marsh Wrens were difficult to see, but there were probably dozens of them in the saltmarsh.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

We saw many Osprey during my trip.  They appear to be as common along the Atlantic coast as they are in Florida.

Osprey nest in the marsh

Osprey nest in the marsh

We spent a few minutes walking Jen’s Trail (in a wooded part of the NWR) after the wildlife drive and added a gnatcatcher and a phoebe to my New Jersey list, but I still had only 99 species when we left Forsythe NWR.  Number 100 ended up being Rock Pigeon on a highway overpass just before dark.

A Great Egret stands out due to its size and color, but the saltmarsh is teeming with unseen wildlife.

A Great Egret stands out due to its size and color, but the saltmarsh is teeming with unseen wildlife.

After our day at Forsythe NWR, it got really hot with daily highs hitting the mid-90s and limiting our birding to morning and late afternoon.  With our other goals accomplished, Derek was on a mission to help me get my Maryland list to 100.  He promised (threatened?) that I could get an injured Snow Goose, but I declined the opportunity to list a bird that would have been farther north on breeding grounds were it not for an injury leaving it unable to fly.

Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park

Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park

On Friday, we found a Yellow Warbler and a Willow Flycatcher at a retention pond.  We looked for Horned Larks at a known location and were successful on our second try.  Derek is participating in the Maryland breeding bird atlas surveys so we were thrilled to find recently fledged juveniles, proof of breeding.  Later, we looked for Grasshopper Sparrows at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park.  It was a confusing place and by the time we figured out where the sparrows had probably been seen by others, it was nearly dark.  Singing Eastern Meadowlarks were a nice consolation prize.

A Ring-billed Gull flies overhead at Ferry Point Park

A Ring-billed Gull flies overhead at Ferry Point Park

Saturday was my last day in Maryland and I still needed nine new birds if I were to reach 100 species.  We decided that the Eastern Shore of Maryland would provide our best opportunity.  At the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, I added Red-headed Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch to my growing list along with Great and Snowy Egrets.  Now we needed gulls.  We joked that neither of us had ever had to work to find gulls before, especially common species like Laughing and Ring-billed Gull.  On to Jackson Creek Landing where we picked up Laughing Gull.  Next to Ferry Point Park where it took more effort than expected, but we finally found Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls.  My Maryland list was then at 99, but it was hot and we needed a break.

A Grasshopper Sparrow singing atop a post in the goat pen

A Grasshopper Sparrow singing atop a post in the goat pen

Late that afternoon, we tried for Grasshopper Sparrows for the third time. The first time, a few days earlier, mowers were cutting the sparrow field as we arrived.  Our second try had been at a different location, Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park, the previous evening.  We headed there again and walked directly to the field where we thought the sparrows were breeding.  There is a nice path around the field, but you can’t even see it from the parking area.  Derek’s hearing is much better than mine and it wasn’t long before he heard the sparrows.  We saw one on a post in the goat pen adjacent to the field that the sparrows must have used for their nesting territory.  What a nice bird for my Maryland #100 and a lovely end to my visit.

Goats at Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park

Goats at Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park

I was very happy that Derek got new birds for his lists, too, 21 state birds and 132 county ticks (birds seen for the first time in a county) including county birds in all eight states we visited.  The focus on our state and county lists gave us direction and enabled us to see new wildlife and landscape.  While it’s currently not safe to travel many places for birding, I am very grateful for this experience.

 

 

Plan A was hatched last fall when the world was still normal.  I would drive to Michigan in late May to see Kirtland’s Warblers on their breeding grounds, continue north into Canada and drive the northern shore of Lake Superior, and then spend some time in Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota before returning home.  I had scheduled Erik Bruhnke to guide me one day at Sax Zim and I hoped that Diane could join us.  Derek might also be able to share part of the adventure with me.  When the coronavirus didn’t “just disappear,” that plan became not just inadvisable, but impossible as Canada closed its border.

Plan B was that Derek and I would do an abbreviated version of the trip, perhaps getting as far as South Dakota, where we could both meet some geographical birding targets and perhaps even get a few life birds.  But, as the coronavirus got worse instead of better, we didn’t want to stay in hotels.

A large pond of American Lotus at Swan Harbor Farm Park in Havre de Grace, MD

A large pond of American Lotus at Swan Harbor Farm Park in Havre de Grace, MD

In a last ditch effort to find something both safe and interesting, Derek invited me to Maryland.  We could base our travels around his home outside Baltimore, which would put us within two to three hours of several mid-Atlantic states and some excellent birding spots.  I left home in North Carolina on July 8, a day earlier than planned, when a Ruff showed up in Virginia.  We planned to meet there, but that plan, too, changed when Derek called me mid-morning and said that the Ruff was gone.  I reset my GPS for Derek’s home and continued my drive.

We set out for Bombay Hook NWR on our first day of birding, one of the places that I most wanted to go.  I hoped to see Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, both species that I have seen only a few times.  Saltmarsh Sparrows declined to make an appearance for us, however, we enjoyed cute Marsh Wrens singing in the reeds and this Seaside Sparrow made me very happy.

Seaside Sparrow along the Saltmarsh Boardwalk at Bombay Hook NWR

Seaside Sparrow along the Saltmarsh Boardwalk at Bombay Hook NWR

Gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, and others made for wonderful birding.  The only thing keeping the day from perfection was the constant biting flies.  They bit so hard that I had blood running down my legs in a few spots and we wondered if they wanted a chunk of flesh to go with our blood.  Later, Derek found the explanation on the Assateague Island National Seashore Facebook page, “Why are greenheads just so nasty?”  The short answer to why the bites hurt so badly is that the female greenhead “will probe the surface area to find a place packed with multiple capillaries to feed from a large pool. Then she will use her scissor-like mouth parts to bite and begin sucking blood. As she continues to draw your blood, other mouth parts begin to work her deeper and deeper into your skin.”  It was well worth it, though, to see these beautiful birds!

Least Sandpiper on Delaware's Slaughter Beach

Least Sandpiper on Delaware’s Slaughter Beach

After we completed the wildlife drive at Bombay Hook, we drove to nearby Slaughter Beach.  We were surprised to see Northern Mockingbirds on the actual beach.  After watching a few minutes, we saw the mockingbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds feeding on horseshoe crabs that had washed up and were scattered all along the water’s edge.  Across the road at the saltmarsh, Derek’s sharp eyes caught a brief look at a Saltmarsh Sparrow that I missed and we both saw more Seaside Sparrows.

We worked our way back into Maryland and finished the day with a stop at Daniel Crouse Memorial Park, a nice end to a big day of birding.

At Daniel Crouse Memorial Park, a female Blue Grosbeak with a grasshopper for her babies

At Daniel Crouse Memorial Park, a female Blue Grosbeak with a grasshopper for her babies

Friday started with a hike at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, 1,900 acres of the largest serpentine barrens in Maryland and one of the few surviving examples on the east coast of this rare environment.  Our targets were Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Summer Tanager, all of which breed in the scrub habitat.  We found Prairie Warblers on the trail through the barrens and Yellow-breasted Chats at a nearly overlook, but we didn’t find any Summer Tanagers.  During my entire visit, we had very little luck with passerines in the hot July days.

We had time for several more birding forays that afternoon, including a stop to see a Peregrine Falcon on a water tower.  My favorite spot was North Point State Park where we found seven Little Blue Herons around the marshy edges of the lake – three dark blue adults, two white juveniles, and two immature birds sporting calico or pied plumage.  Little Blue Herons are white when they leave the nest, helping them blend into flocks of aggressive Snowy Egrets more easily.  It takes two years to achieve the full adult plumage.  For a short time during the transition from white to blue, one-year-old Little Blue Herons look like the beautiful bird below.

Little Blue Heron at North Point SP

Little Blue Heron at North Point SP

We headed to West Virginia on Saturday with the goal of upping my state list from 34 to 50.  It was more challenging without beaches, but I ended the day with exactly 50 species on my WV bird list.  My favorite spot was Stauffer’s Marsh Nature Preserve.  In addition to a few nice birds, we saw this beautiful Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth at Stauffer's Marsh Nature Preserve

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth at Stauffer’s Marsh Nature Preserve

Our West Virginia day ended with some fun and relaxing time at Baker Park in Frederick, Maryland, where we enjoyed observing a breeding colony of Black-crowned Night-Herons.  This was only the second time that I have ever seen tame night-herons.  The following photos were taken just a few feet away from the birds.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron at Baker Park

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron at Baker Park

Adult Black-crowned Night-Heron at Baker Park

Adult Black-crowned Night-Heron at Baker Park

Susquehanna State Park is the premier birding destination in northeastern Maryland and that’s where we headed on Sunday.  Again, passerines (perching birds) were more scarce than we expected.  Where were the warblers foraging with their youngsters?  But, we found a Kentucky Warbler right away and I had a very satisfying experience with this species that I don’t see often.  This gorgeous bird was still singing when we left and we probably could have watched him for as long as we liked.

Kentucky Warbler at Susquehanna State Park

Kentucky Warbler at Susquehanna State Park

It wasn’t a warbler, but at least the Gray Catbirds were out with just fledged juveniles in the picnic area.

Juvenile Gray Catbird at Susquehanna State Park

Juvenile Gray Catbird at Susquehanna State Park

After leaving Susquehanna SP, we went to Swan Harbor Farm Park and added a few more birds to my growing Maryland list.  Here’s a close-up of American Lotus, Nelumbo lutea, that covered a pond there and was shown in the first photo in this post.

American Lotus at Swan Harbor Farm Park

American Lotus at Swan Harbor Farm Park

We spent most of Monday in Pennsylvania, first at William H. Kain County Park and then at Richard M. Nixon County Park.  I had been to these spots in previous trips and it was nice to visit again.

A Great Egret in the beautiful, but horrible non-native invasive Purple Loosestrife at Kain County Park

A Great Egret in the beautiful, but horrible non-native invasive Purple Loosestrife at Kain County Park

One warbler that we did see and hear nearly everywhere was Common Yellowthroat.

Male Common Yellowthroat at Richard M. Nixon County Park

Male Common Yellowthroat at Richard M. Nixon County Park

We saw many beautiful birds in just five days and my visit was only half over!  Watch for Part 2.

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.