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Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

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)

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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?

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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.

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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?

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After our last session of birding the blinds at Baihualing and lunch, we drove for three hours to Tengchong.  The next morning, January 27, we birded Laifengshan National Forest Park.  The first birds we saw were two Bar-tailed Treecreepers, which I thought looked an awful lot like my Brown Creepers at home.

Bar-tailed Treecreeper

Bar-tailed Treecreeper

Laifengshan is a popular park and visitors that day included several Chinese bird photographers.   A young Chinese woman with a camera excitedly showed me a Slender-billed Oriole, one of our targets here.  When I had asked Nick about field marks for the oriole, he said that the black mask goes all the way around the nape.  Like so often happens, I didn’t realize how beautiful the bird is until I actually saw it.

Slender-billed Oriole.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Slender-billed Oriole. Photo by John Hopkins.

The park was very pretty and it was a gorgeous sunny day.  While walking up to the temple we saw some nice birds including Rufous-bellied and Darjeeling Woodpeckers.

The entrance at the paved path that leads to the temple

The entrance at the paved path that leads to the temple

We also saw this Davison’s Leaf Warbler.  Asian warblers are rather drab for the most part compared to our colorful North American jewels, however, I was still happy to get identifiable photos of several warbler species during our Yunnan trip.

Davison's Leaf Warbler

Davison’s Leaf Warbler

Shortly after noon, we left Tengchong for the drive to Nabang, where would spend the next 2-1/2 days.

One of my favorite experiences in the Nabang area was time spent at a recently established photo blind/feeding station.  We were walking along a forest trail when two young women on a motorcycle came by and said “Come see our blind.”  The first half hour seemed to be a total waste of time as we saw absolutely no birds at all.  Then, suddenly, birds began to arrive.

White-crowned Forktail

White-crowned Forktail

I was very, very happy to get wonderful close views of two gorgeous White-crowned Forktails that came in to the feeding area.  This Rufous-bellied Niltava was another of my favorites.

Rufous-bellied Niltava

Rufous-bellied Niltava

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Little Pied Flycatcher, and White-tailed Robin were among other species seen well at the blind.

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

One our way back to the hotel that evening, the Asian Emerald Dove below was in the road in front of the bus.  The others could not believe that this was a life bird for me.  They seriously thought that I must have seen it before as it seemed a very common Asian bird to them.  My bird was special, though, as it had extra white feathers.  This species normally has white only on the face and front of the shoulder.

Asian Emerald Dove, photographed through the bus window

Asian Emerald Dove, photographed through the bus window

We continued birding in the Nabang area for the next day and a half.  On our last morning, we enjoyed this displaying Crested Goshawk, with the distinctive white undertail coverts fluffed up across the rump.  In one of those quirks of birding, I have now seen this species three times, but I’m still looking for my life Northern Goshawk at home.

Crested Goshawk

Crested Goshawk

It was then on to Ruili, the last destination of our birding tour.  Early on our first morning there, we birded the trail to Moli Waterfalls, part of the Moli Scenic Area, one of the most beautiful locations we visited during the entire trip.  One of our main targets was Streaked Wren-Babbler, a sneaky little bird as one would expect with both “wren” and “babbler” in its name.  But, due to Nick’s patience and perseverance, I saw the little brown bird.

Streaked Wren-Babbler

Streaked Wren-Babbler

Nick loves those skulky little brown birds, but I prefer big colorful birds like this Red-headed Trogon.  Before this trip, I thought of Trogons as primarily Central American birds, but I learned that they are residents of tropical forests worldwide. The greatest diversity is in the Neotropics, where 24 species occur, but there are also three African species and 12 species of Trogon found in southeast Asia.

Red-headed Trogon.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Red-headed Trogon. Photo by John Hopkins.

February first was the last day of birding for the tour.  We started at a ridge-top road just outside of Ruili.  I picked up a few more life birds, including Black-crested Bulbul.

Black-crested Bulbul

Black-crested Bulbul

But mostly, I just remember a lovely morning with pleasant companions, friendly farmers, and sunshine.  I also remember watching drongos that morning, common birds in Yunnan with five different species seen during our two weeks there.  I got 104 life birds on the trip, but I would have had more if I hadn’t missed so many birds due to my poor vision.  Sometimes, when the others were focused on some distant or skulky bird that I couldn’t find, I just watched drongos, gracefully sallying out for insects and then resettling in the treetops.  I was mesmerized by the graceful flights of these birds.  I thought that if you could cross a flycatcher with a swallow, you would get a drongo.

Bronzed Drongo

Bronzed Drongo

And, then the morning was over and we piled back into the bus to start towards the airport.  We stopped for lunch on the way at a lovely outside restaurant.  While waiting for our food, someone noticed Asian Palm-Swifts flying low over the palm trees at the edge of the parking lot.  This seemed like a bonus bird and very appropriate for my last China life bird.  After lunch, we drove to the airport for our flight to Kunming.  The next morning, the others would start their journeys home and I would fly to Shenzhen where I would visit my son, Dave, and his girlfriend, Rachel.

I love Barn Swallows with their white bellies in this part of the world.

I love Barn Swallows with their white bellies in this part of the world.

Parts of the trip were challenging, but I have no regrets.  I saw a beautiful part of the world and many gorgeous birds.  I enjoyed the company of birders far more accomplished than I will ever be.  The other birders and our Zoothera Birding guide, Nick Bray, were fun and wonderfully kind about helping me see as many birds as possible.  Near the end when I was getting tired, I thought that it would be my last trip to China, but now I don’t know if I can bear the thought of never again seeing the spectacular beauty of China’s birds.

 

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If I’d died and gone to birding heaven, it couldn’t have been much better than Baihualing.  If you have been to South America and seen antpittas and other shy forest birds come to worms when called, imagine that.  Except that it lasts all day rather than five minutes.  The bird blinds/feeding stations at Baihualing are amazing.  Each blind (or “hide” as the Brits say) is owned by a local who created and manages it.  A good location is identified and then the blind owner creates a stage for the birds with water features, logs and stumps that can be filled with suet or worms, places to perch, etc.  On one side is the hide – a narrow rectangular tent-like structure with either a long window or portholes for binoculars and cameras and little plastic stools for sitting.

Everyone needs a drink, even shy species like these Mountain Bamboo-Partridges.

Everyone needs a drink, even shy species like these Mountain Bamboo-Partridges.

I envision the creation process is much like that of a male bowerbird who looks at his stage from various perspectives.  Will the birds find it appealing and come?  Will the birders and photographers in the blind have good views?  Ongoing management consists of chauffeuring birders back and forth between the hotel and the blind, feeding the birds throughout the day, and collecting the modest fees that birders and photographers pay for the privilege of wonderful close looks at birds that would otherwise be very difficult to find and see well.  It’s a winning situation for everyone, including the birds.

We arrived at this wonderful place late in the afternoon of January 23th and spent nearly two hours in Blind #8.  Here are some of the gorgeous birds we saw that first day.

Red-billed Leiothrix. I missed this beautiful little bird on previous trips to China, so I was thrilled to finally get such a wonderful close look this time.

Red-billed Leiothrix. I missed this beautiful little bird on previous trips to China, so I was thrilled to finally get such a wonderful close look this time.

Red-tailed Laughingthrush. It's hard to believe, but these beauties were common at the blinds with half a dozen or so frequently in the feeding areas.

Red-tailed Laughingthrush. It’s hard to believe, but these beauties were common at the blinds with half a dozen or so frequently in the feeding areas.

Chestnut-headed Tesia. What a little charmer! This is a species that would have been difficult to see well "in the wild."

Chestnut-headed Tesia. What a little charmer! This is a species that would have been difficult to see well “in the wild.”

Rusty-capped Fulvettas. These little cuties were fun to watch.

Rusty-capped Fulvettas. These little cuties were fun to watch.

Space prohibits displaying all of my photos from that afternoon, so here is a link to my eBird checklist.

The next morning we walked a nearby trail for over six hours.  It was advertised as “flat,” but several of us thought it was a bit steep and I didn’t stay with the group the entire time.  I didn’t see many birds on the trail, but I did see a beautiful Black Giant Squirrel which was so big that I didn’t even realize it was a squirrel at first.

Black Giant Squirrel.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Black Giant Squirrel. Photo by John Hopkins.

Later that afternoon, I was happy to spend two hours in Blind #77.  In that short time, I got eight life birds!  Here are a few of my favorite photos from the afternoon.

Red-tailed Minla. Such a smart and sophisticated-looking bird. I can't help assigning human-like personalities to some of these exotic Asian birds.

Red-tailed Minla. Such a smart and sophisticated-looking bird. I can’t help assigning human-like personalities to some of these exotic Asian birds.

Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler. I have been awed by scimitar-babblers ever since I first saw a Gray-sided Scimitar-Babbler in 2012. And, what a struggle it was to see that first one. Scimitar-Babblers are normally very shy birds.

Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler. I have been awed by scimitar-babblers ever since I first saw a Gray-sided Scimitar-Babbler in 2012. And, what a struggle it was to see that first one. Scimitar-Babblers are normally very shy birds.

Yellow-cheeked Tit. Punk bird?

Yellow-cheeked Tit. Punk bird?

Scarlet-faced Liocichla. These gorgeous birds were fairly common and we frequently saw them with Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Scarlet-faced Liocichla. These gorgeous birds were fairly common and we frequently saw them with Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

And, here is my eBird checklist from that session with more photos.

The next day, January 25, we spent the entire day in the blinds starting with #35 in the morning.  Some species seem to be constantly present at a blind and others come and go throughout the day.  Some of the shyer birds may only come once or twice a day – or skip a day entirely.  A few photos from that session:

Blue-winged Lauthingthrush. Gorgeous and a little scary looking. Very shy compared to Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Blue-winged Lauthingthrush. Gorgeous and a little scary looking. Very shy compared to Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Ashy Drongo. He came into the feeding area like he owned it, with grace and confidence, but no arrogance. Yep, I can't help those human comparisons. Drongos are common in China and the others didn't get excited over them, but I loved them, especially this species.

Ashy Drongo. He came into the feeding area like he owned it, with grace and confidence, but no arrogance. Yep, I can’t help those human comparisons. Drongos are common in China and the others didn’t get excited over them, but I loved them, especially this species.

Flavescent Bulbuls enjoying an apple.

Flavescent Bulbuls enjoying an apple.

Streaked Spiderhunter is a species that we enjoyed seeing from the blinds, but this is one that we also saw well several times “in the wild.” Presumably, these birds do feed on spiders and insects, but that long curved bill is adapted for obtaining nectar. National Geographic even includes them in its list of Top 25 Birds with a Sugar Rush.

Streaked Spiderhunter

Silver-eared Mesia. These beautiful little birds are currently doing well in the wild, however, the population is under pressure from trapping for the caged bird trade.

Silver-eared Mesia. These beautiful little birds are currently doing well in the wild, however, the population is under pressure from trapping for the caged bird trade.

Long-tailed Sibia. One of the many species that enjoyed the apples at the feeding stations.

Long-tailed Sibia. One of the many species that enjoyed the apples at the feeding stations.

Large Niltava. This individual is a female. I think that she is just as gorgeous as her mate.

Large Niltava. This individual is a female. I think that she is just as gorgeous as her mate.

Pallas's Squirrel. These and Northern Tree Shrew were common visitors to the feeding stations.

Pallas’s Squirrel. These and Northern Tree Shrew were common visitors to the feeding stations.

Here is my eBird checklist from the morning.

We spent the afternoon in Blind #11, at a little higher elevation than the others we had visited, which produced a few new species.  Each blind has its specialties.  At this one, new birds were Hill Partridge and Gray-sided Laughingthrush.  This blind was the only location where we saw either of these species.

Hill Partridge

Hill Partridge

Gray-sided Laughingthrush

Gray-sided Laughingthrush

Himalayan Bluetail. Amazingly, we saw many of these beautiful birds. This one is a male.

Himalayan Bluetail. Amazingly, we saw many of these beautiful birds. This one is a male.

My eBird checklist from Blind #11 has more photos.

On our final morning at Baihualing, we all had a choice – walk the trails to search for species that don’t come to the blinds or have another session at a blind.  You can guess which option I choose.  It turned out to be a good decision as the others dipped again on their second try for Gould’s Shortwing, a difficult species to find.  Additionally, our little group in the blind had wonderful looks at eight Mountain Bamboo-Partridges, the only good sighting of this species during the trip.

Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (male)

Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (male)

That last morning, we also had excellent looks at many species seen during the previous few days.  A few of my favorites were the birds below.

Large Niltava (male)

Large Niltava (male)

Great Barbet

Great Barbet

Mr. Orange-bellied Leafbird. I had seen these gorgeous birds on previous trips, but I was thrilled to get much closer looks this time.

Mr. Orange-bellied Leafbird. I had seen these gorgeous birds on previous trips, but I was thrilled to get much closer looks this time.

Mrs. Orange-bellied Leafbird

Mrs. Orange-bellied Leafbird

Here is my last eBird checklist from Baihualing, but there are six more days in the Zoothera Birding trip and then a week in Shenzhen, so I’ll be back with more stories.

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My son Dave visited Yunnan shortly after he moved to China in 2008.  For years, he has urged me to see this province of China that is often considered the most beautiful.  So, when Nick Bray, who led my birding trip in 2012, posted on Facebook that he was planning Zoothera Birding‘s first trip to Yunnan, I immediately signed up.

Common Kingfishers are widespread in Asia and I have seen them on every trip, this time in both Yunnan and later in Shenzhen.

Common Kingfishers are widespread in Asia and I have seen them on every trip, this time in both Yunnan and later in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Kunming in the wee hours of January 16th, a full day before the others so that I wouldn’t be starting the trip with jet lag.  I planned to sleep late and then do a little birding on my first day.  I thought that I was so smart when I was preparing for the trip and found a little park not far from the hotel.  I printed the map so that I could show it to a taxi driver as no taxi drivers in China speak any English.  The hotel called a taxi for me and, as planned, I showed my little map to the driver.  I assumed that he would take me to the park, but after a few minutes he showed me his phone with a translation app.  It said “That park is old and depressed.  Why do you want to go there?  Guandu Forest Park is new and beautiful and it’s free.”  I tried to ask how far the suggested park was, but the translation app turned “How far is the park?” into profanity.  I vigorously shook my head “no” and gave up.  So, of course, the driver took me to the suggested park, 45 minutes away and $15.00 rather than 10 minutes and the $3.00 fare that I expected.  I was frustrated, but I should have known better.  After four previous trips to China, I have learned that communication is difficult and misunderstandings are frequent, even when simply trying to get from Point A to Point B.

Yellow-billed Grosbeak

Yellow-billed Grosbeak

The park was a typical Chinese city park – full of people, even a band playing – beautiful, but not conducive to productive birding.  But, I quickly relaxed and enjoyed the lovely afternoon for a couple of hours.  Even with all the activity, I found a little flock of Yellow-billed Grosbeaks, a species that the Zoothera group would not see at all.

Back at the hotel, I found a few birds on the edge of the parking area, including several White Wagtails.  I find Wagtails very interesting and always try to photograph them.  This was the first time that I saw an alboides subspecies and I thought that he was a rather snazzy looking bird, even in winter plumage.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alboides

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alboides

That evening I enjoyed dinner with John Hopkins, another birder who had arrived early.  The next day we met up with the rest of the group at the airport – ten participants and three guides.  There was one other woman in the group, from Germany, and one man from Sweden.  The rest of the group consisted of males from the UK except for our two Chinese guides.  After a quick lunch, we were off on our adventure.  Our first destination was Zixishan, a mountain park near Chuxiong, about three hours from Kunming.  We arrived in time for a little birding before checking into our hotel and we found our two target birds right away – the endemic Yunnan Nuthatch and Giant Nuthatch.  The Yunnan Nuthatch posed quite nicely for us at a close distance, not typical behavior we were told.

Yunnan Nuthatch

Yunnan Nuthatch

The following day, we started birding at Zixishan before sunrise.  It was a nice morning and we saw a good number of birds.  This Chinese Thrush sat on the side of the road and never moved, even as we moved closer and closer for photos.  It was still sitting there when we left to look for other species.

Chinese Thrush

Chinese Thrush

The afternoon brought a 6-hour drive to Lijiang where we hoped to see Biet’s Laughingthrush, my most wanted bird of the trip.  But, alas, our good fortune at Zixishan did not continue at Lijiang.  Despite several hours of intensive searching in the areas where the laughingthrush has historically been seen, we neither heard nor saw one.  We learned that this rare bird is becoming increasingly difficult to find, perhaps in part due to illegal poaching for the caged bird trade.

The best birds at Lijiang were a pair of Rufous-tailed Babblers bouncing around the top of a big trash pile, singing almost constantly.  Several of us just sat in the grass a few yards away with our cameras and click-click-clicked as these normally shy birds put on a fantastic close-up show for us.

Rufous-tailed Babbler

Rufous-tailed Babbler

The others in our group had started teasing me about ducks almost as soon as our trip started.  Apparently I was the only waterfowl enthusiast, or maybe ducks were just too easy for the more serious birders with life lists of over 6,000 species.  I got my wish to see ducks on the morning that we left Lijiang with a quick stop at Lijiang Wetland Park.  I loved it!  There were hundreds of birds on the lake.  I got much better looks at beautiful Ferruginous Ducks than I’d had previously.  And, I even got three life birds.  Surprisingly, I had never seen a real wild Graylag Goose before.  Red-crested Pochard and Smew were also new.

Ferruginous Ducks

Ferruginous Ducks

It seemed that everyone enjoyed our short time at the wetland despite their earlier claims that they didn’t care about ducks.  I think that we could have stayed for hours and everyone would have been happy.  But, we had a long drive ahead, so we couldn’t savor the ducks and wetland birds for long.  Back in the van, the more experienced birders gave me a good lesson in separating Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls.  With their expert knowledge and my photos, I quickly learned that it really was easy to differentiate these two species.

Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls with Graylag Geese. Even in this rather poor photo, you can easily note the larger size of the Brown-headed Gulls, the dark wingtips, and huge mirrors in the outermost primaries.

Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls with Graylag Geese. Even in this rather poor photo, you can easily note the larger size of the Brown-headed Gulls, the dark wingtips, and huge mirrors in the outermost primaries.

After leaving the Lijiang wetland, we drove 8 hours to Lushui.  The next morning we continued through part of Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, over Pianma Pass (3,100 meters), and to the small town of Pianma near the Myanmar border where we would spend the next two nights.  The first morning in this area started with one of the most thrilling sightings of the entire trip – and it was not a bird.  It was a Red Panda sleeping in the sunshine in a bare tree!  This charismatic little mammal (about the size of a house cat) is fascinating.  It has thick fur on the soles of its feet.  It uses that fluffy 18-inch tail to wrap around itself for warmth.  The Smithsonian has more interesting facts about the Red Panda, a species classified as endangered with a population of less than 10,000 remaining in the wild.

The Red Panda as seen from the road.

The Red Panda as seen from the road.

A close-up of the adorable Red Panda. This is the view that we got through the scope. Photo by John Hopkins.

A close-up of the adorable Red Panda. This is the view that we got through the scope. Photo by John Hopkins.

After the panda sighting, things were pretty slow.  Actually, they were very slow and this was my least favorite part of the trip.  The hotel was awful, it was cold, and we didn’t find our main target birds.  For two full days, we traveled back and forth over Pianma Pass and birded along the road, which was always covered in a thin layer of ice except in sunny spots.  On the second day, several of the others found some good birds by climbing up the side of the mountain on rough rather steep trails.  I stayed on the road not wanting to wear myself out or trigger an asthma attack by too much activity at 3,100 meters.  OK, I was a little lazy.  But, my vision is so bad that I don’t think that I would have seen the birds anyway, even if I had scrambled up the mountainside.  Just like on my 2012 trip with Nick, most of the others were in better physical shape and were much more experienced and skillful birders than me.  But I didn’t miss one of the best birds of the day when late that afternoon we found this spectacular little bird, a Fire-tailed Myzornis.

Fire-tailed Myzornis. Photo by John Hopkins.

Fire-tailed Myzornis. Photo by John Hopkins.

The following morning, we left for Baihualing and it’s many bird blinds, where I would be in birding heaven.  Stay tuned.

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