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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Life has kept me busy recently. It’s hard to believe that our Utah trip was three months ago. Finally, here is the rest of the story – my drive back to North Carolina. After dropping David at the Albuquerque airport, I wanted to stay close until his plane was airborne, so I chose an easy place to see lots of birds – Tingley Lagoon, part of ABQ BioPark. Well, there were lots of ducks, but I like ducks. There were also cormorants that breed on the little islands in the middle of the ponds – both Double-crested and Neotropic – but my photos all seem to show Neotropic Cormorants.

Here are a few other birds from this spot, a female Common Merganser, male Northern Pintail, American Coot, and Canada Goose.

After a pleasant hour at the Tingley Lagoons, it was time to head east. I got one more “life” New Mexico bird at the Pajarito rest area – a Chihuahuan Raven that I was able to identify only because I noticed its call sounded different from Common Raven and I recorded it.

At another rest area near Santa Rosa, I saw the Cholla on the right. Then I drove on into Texas where I spent the night.

The next morning, I found one more Texas life bird, Western Meadowlark, at the Donley County US 287 Safety Rest Area. I got photos of a meadowlark that was satisfactory for identification, but this Eurasian Collared-Dove was much more photogenic.

My major stops on the way back to NC were both in Oklahoma, first Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. It is a major birding hotspot, but is more well-known for its other wildlife, notably the bison, longhorn, and elk that roam the park’s 59,000 acres.

Nearly 100 years ago, a herd of Longhorn was established at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge to save the breed from extinction. Here is a detailed accounting of the story. Apparently, there are current debates about whether or not cattle belong on a wildlife refuge, but they are beautiful and I’d guess the desire to see these creatures contributes to making this one of the most visited wildlife refuges in the county.

The refuge also has several prairie dog towns and I never tire of these cute rodents. Did you know that they are related to squirrels and chipmunks? Yes, they are all in the family Scuiridae. These were black-tailed prairie dogs, the only one that I think I’ve seen of the five prairie dog species in North America.

I did see a few birds, too, like the Greater Yellowlegs below, although I’m sure there would have been many more birds later in the year.

My favorite bird at Wichita Mountains was a single Ring-billed Gull proudly standing in the middle of a prairie dog town on the side of the road.

The next day I toured another wildlife refuge, Sequoyah NWR, near Oklahoma’s eastern border with Arkansas. I received a nice welcome from a flock of about 40 American White Pelicans that flew over as I drove into the park. This refuge had only a fraction of the visitors of Wichita Mountains on the day I visited. However, I met a couple of birders at the entrance kiosk and we birded a lovely path in the woods together. The rest of the refuge was mostly open and the next birds I saw were a large flock of Snow Geese.

It was interesting to see so many dark morph birds in the group. Snow Geese winter on the coast of North Carolina, but we rarely see a “Blue Goose” here.

In addition to birds, I saw a new and interesting turtle. Unfortunately, I focused my camera on the wrong one, the larger pond slider, a common and widespread species that I’ve seen many times. After submitting it to iNaturalist, I learned that the turtle on the right is an Ouachita Map Turtle. It is not rare either, but its range is the south-central part of the US and I’d never seen one before. And, what a cool name!

I saw about 35 species of birds at Sequoyah, mostly the same species that I can see in North Carolina. My last bird there was a Bald Eagle that flew over a pond filled with ducks and then landed in a tree by the road. I enjoyed the hours I spent at this refuge and would love to visit again.

After Sequoyah, all that was left was the uneventful drive to North Carolina. This was definitely my least birdy road trip ever, but I did manage to get both my Oklahoma and New Mexico lists to over 50 species. I also added several new counties even though you can drive for miles and miles in the West and see nothing. The map below shows every county in which I have observed birds. Good county birders have maps with clear, continuous lines representing travels. My maps look like an advanced version of connect-the-dots, but I try.

But more important than the birds was the amazing landscape that David and I saw in Utah and the fun we had exploring that part of our country. Visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park made this a trip of a lifetime.

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Each of our first four mornings in Moab, David rode his bicycle on the designated route for the Skinny Tire Festival and I birded various spots near town. On the first day, Saturday, March 12, David rode 64 miles to Dead Horse Point State Park and back. That was a big ride, so we didn’t do much that afternoon, but we did walk to a nearby spot on the river where David had seen a Great Blue Heron. The heron had moved on, but we saw a few ducks, including gorgeous Cinnamon Teal in breeding plumage.

The second day, David rode north along the Colorado River. He came back and didn’t even change out of his cycling clothes before saying that we had to leave immediately because he had just ridden by dozens of ducks on the river. Many had left by the time we arrived a few minutes later, but about 50 remained including three new species for our Utah list. We also saw American Pipits on the riverbank, a life bird for David.

It was still early, so we decided to drive to Arches National Park to preview it for David’s ride the next day. With the steep ascent and hairpin turns on the road into the park, that turned out to be a good idea which allowed David to plan his ride. Below, “Balanced Rock,” a favorite site in the park.

“Devil’s Garden” is one of Arches’ most popular areas. We enjoyed exploring it a bit when it wasn’t mobbed.

On Monday, the festival cyclists rode into Arches NP. David stopped at the “Park Avenue” overlook to take a photo of his bike.

We wanted to go back again in the car later that afternoon, but the park was full and a sign was posted saying “Come back in 3 hours,” so we drove to Canyonlands National Park instead. This is another impressive park as you can see from the photos below.

While David was riding in the Skinny Tire Festival, I was birding every morning. I wanted to get my Utah list to 50 species. I started with five birds from a stop along the Colorado-Utah state line during the Colorado Grouse Tour in 2019 (Part 2 with the jaunt into Utah). With over five days in Utah on this trip, it seemed like an easy goal. But, I was struggling to find much other than ducks. So, after we got back from Canyonlands NP, David and I drove a local road just outside of Moab looking for House Sparrows and European Starlings. Yep, I was that desperate. We found our target birds, a Eurasian Collared-Dove, and a lovely Western Meadowlark, another life bird for David. In those five days of birding, I didn’t get good photos of anything other than a Common Raven.

On the last day of the festival, the ride was along the Colorado again, this time downriver on Potash Road. That afternoon, we went back to the Wall Street section of Potash Road. Its sheer cliffs are popular with rock climbers and a large well-preserved petroglyph panel provides an outstanding look at ancient Indian art. Dinosaur tracks are also nearby and David hiked up the mountainside to get a closer look. I was satisfied with my binocular view and stayed on the road to watch the Ornate Tree Lizards which fascinated me.

Both of us had been watching for wildlife every day, but we were disappointed that we didn’t see much. The only things in abundance were these beautiful butterflies that David first noticed on his rides. I think this is a Checkered White.

The day after the festival, we headed to Arches National Park first thing in the morning before even checking out of our hotel. We drove around several areas, but the Windows Section was our favorite.

Then it was on to Dead Horse Point State Park, perhaps David’s favorite of the three parks we visited. The park is located at the end of a mesa that soars 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, on the edge of Canyonlands NP. The overlook where David stands is one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world. If you want the sad legend of how the park got its name, read this.

Below, a view into Canyonlands NP from Dead Horse Point State Park.

We had seen a little mammal scurrying across the landscape a couple of times, but they were too quick to even guess what they were. Finally, in front of the Dead Horse Point SP Visitor Center, I got good looks and a photo of a Hopi Chipmunk. This individual was almost tame and even came towards me once. It differs from most other chipmunks by having no black stripes.

Our planned adventure at Dead Horse Point was to view the night sky. The park is a designated location by the International Dark-Sky Association. Six yurts at the Wingate Campground allow a “luxury” outdoor experience. Honestly, I was not looking forward to the only bathroom facilities being the vault toilet shown on the map, but I was pleasantly surprised by flush toilets and running water for hand washing just a short distance from my yurt.

So, the facilities were fine, but our night sky experience was a bust. A full moon and cloud-filled sky obscured nearly all the stars. A dark-sky experience remains on our bucket list.

It was still pleasant to experience the quiet outdoors in the late evening and early morning and we could hardly complain with a view like this.

A quick look at a Juniper Titmouse near the yurts was my last new Utah bird. This brought my Utah total to only 35 species.

After a leisurely morning at Dead Horse Point SP, we headed back towards Albuquerque for David’s flight home the following day. The previous few days had felt familiar and reminded me of western Colorado. A little research revealed that much of Utah is in the Colorado plateau, the same physiographic province as western Colorado as shown on this map.

Below is our last arch, Wilson’s Arch, about 30 miles south of Moab.

We arrived with just enough time before dark to go back to the park (Los Poblanos Open Space) where I had looked for the Western Screech-Owl nearly a week earlier. I had seen several Greater Roadrunners there and we hoped that David would see one, but nope. The “birdless” moniker for the trip continued to be appropriate. Regardless, our Utah adventure was amazing and I am very grateful for the experience.

What will happen on my drive to North Carolina? Follow along with me and see what I discover.

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My friend, David, and I have shared a few adventures consisting of his bicycle riding and my birding. It’s been fun, so we are always alert to more opportunities, but David is naive about the distribution and seasonality of birds. He thinks that there are lots of birds everywhere all the time. When he suggested Utah in March for the Skinny Tire Festival, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wouldn’t see many birds. But, such a trip would hopefully allow me to make some progress towards my geographic goal of 50 birds in 50 states and I would see some spectacular scenery.

It’s difficult to fly to Moab, which has only one flight a day, so we decided to meet in Albuquerque. I would drive there, David would fly, and then we would drive to Moab together. I started from Florida on March 6 and just drove for the first couple of days. It got more interesting in Texas. I headed towards Lubbock where a Mexican Duck, a species that I still needed for my life list, was being seen regularly. Shortly before I got there, I saw a pond with Canada Geese on the side of the road. Surprisingly, I still needed the goose for my Texas list, so I stopped and spent some time in little Post City Park. The Canada Goose and a pair of Bufflehead brought my Texas list to 285. Quite a few Brewer’s Blackbirds drank and bathed with the geese and ducks.

It was late when I got into Lubbock and I went straight to my hotel. The following morning, I went to Leroy Elmore Park to look for the Mexican Duck. Like many city parks, there were lots of domestic mallards and geese and all the waterfowl seemed habituated to humans. I was just taking my time surveying the variety of ducks when suddenly there he was – the handsome male Mexican Duck. It was one of the easiest lifers ever! You may think that he looks like a female Mallard, and Mexican Duck was previously considered a subspecies of Mallard, but it was accepted as a full species a few years ago. One of the most obvious physical differences is the dull yellowish bill, but there are other differences in appearance as well as genetic differences.

Cackling Geese at Leroy Elmore Park were a bonus. I have seen them many times before in other states, but they were new for Texas.

Next on my itinerary was Los Poblanos Open Space in Albuquerque the next day, March 10, before I picked up David at the airport. I had hoped for a second lifer, Western Screech-Owl, which had been reported by many birders until a few days before my arrival. I repeatedly checked all the boxes where he had been seen by others, but there was no sign of the owl. The most entertaining birds that I found where three Greater Roadrunners. One of them caught a House Mouse and ran around with it while making soft mewing sounds.

I finally gave up on the owl and went to Rio Grande Nature Center State Park to wait for David’s arrival. I immediately loved this pretty park. It had more vegetation than I’d seen since I had left the southeast and it had bird feeders! Some birders prefer to see birds in a more natural environment, but I want to see them up close. I enjoyed the White-crowned Sparrows, Red-shafted Flicker, Spotted Towhee, and others at the feeder area and the Wood Ducks in the lake. A ranger told me that there were porcupines in trees on one of the longer trails, but I didn’t have time that day. I remembered Burt’s words “Always leave something for next time.”

David’s flights had gone smoothly and he arrived on time. We loaded his bike into the car and headed towards Bloomfield, New Mexico, where we would spend the night. The next morning as we were loading the car, David found a Turkey Vulture. It doesn’t sound very notable, but it was flagged by eBird as “rare” and required documentation. We were both puzzled, but quickly discovered that it was just a few days earlier than usual. Traveling always reminds you that “location, location, location” doesn’t just apply to real estate. Location (and time of year) are two big determinants of what birds to expect at any given time and place.

As soon as we started driving north the scenery changed just as I’d hoped. This was David’s first trip west since he was too young to remember. I was thrilled that he was getting a nice introduction to the American West.

We enjoyed our drive to Moab, Utah, where the Skinny Tire Festival would begin the next day. Stay turned for Part 2.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ring-billed Gulls

Ring-billed Gulls

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

A poor photo of an amazing Osprey hovering over Lake Champlain

A poor photo of an amazing Osprey hovering over Lake Champlain

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

A chipmunk who's chirping almost fooled me

A chipmunk who’s chirping almost fooled me

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

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

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

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

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

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

David enjoys the view from a a stop on Whiteface Mountain

David enjoys the view from a a stop on Whiteface Mountain

Another scenic view from the road up Whiteface Mountain

Another scenic view from the road up Whiteface Mountain

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

The beautiful waterfall at High Falls Gorge

The beautiful waterfall at High Falls Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David's rides took him past numerous waterfalls

David’s rides took him past numerous waterfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After two big days of birding with Joan Collins, we were all ready for a leisurely morning.  Saturday we slept in a little, got organized, and loaded up both cars.  Then we went back to the Bloomingdale Bog feeders.  Derek and I had fun when we were there a few days earlier and we wanted to share that experience with David.  It was nearly noon when we got there, but it seemed to be good timing.  As we walked down the short trail to the feeders, David commented that the large open bog must be good for raptors.  And sure enough that appeared to be a cue for four American Kestrels to make an appearance and fly from one tall snag to another over the bog.

Next it was the Hairy Woodpecker show.  A nice male flew at eye level from from one tree to another in the feeding area for around ten minutes.  None of us had ever had closer looks.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

And then it was time for the main event – feeding the Canada Jays.  I went first and was thrilled with the feeling of the bird on my hand.  The photo below shows how happy it made me.

David was next.  Later he confessed that he wasn’t really all that interested until he saw my face when a Jay was on my hand.  He loved it, too.  He said of the jay, “He looked me in the eye.”  And, one of David’s birds chirped after every raisin “as if saying ‘Thank you’.”  David also noted that one jay stuffed five raisins in his beak at one time.

David makes friends with a Canada Jay. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

David makes friends with a Canada Jay. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The Canada Jay was called Gray Jay for many years until last year when its name was officially changed back to Canada Jay, the name that the bird had gone by from at least 1831 to 1957.  The bird’s nicknames are more interesting, though.  “Camp Robber” is given because they frequently visit campsites for a handout and have even been known to enter tents looking for food.  “Whiskey Jack” is a name that likely stems from the Cree wisikejack or wisakedjak.

The jay is associated with mythological figures of several First Nations cultures.  But it’s to the Cree peoples especially that Wisakedjak is a shape-shifter who frequently appears as the Canada Jay, a benign spirit, fun-loving and cheerful.  The bird is seen in Cree stories as an example of good manners and good company.

A Canada Jay on David's hand. Note how his feet wrap around David's fingers. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

A Canada Jay on David’s hand. Note how his feet wrap around David’s fingers. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Canada Jays are also fascinating in their breeding behavior.  Pairs are monogamous and remain together for life.  These hardy birds live year round in the north, mostly in Canada.  During warmer months, they gather and store food for the harsh winter to come.  Nesting starts in late winter; both males and females work hard to build a nest that is well-insulated.  Eggs are laid in late February or March and the female stays on the nest while incubating eggs and brooding young chicks while the male brings food to the nest.

All done. A Canada Jay flies off David's hand. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

All done. A Canada Jay flies off David’s hand. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Derek had a turn and then we walked the short distance back to the car.  We drove to Ticonderoga that afternoon where David would start Cycle Adirondack’s Ultimate Cycling Vacation on Sunday.  David went to the welcome dinner while Derek and I headed out for one last birding adventure before he would have to start home.  Derek had 97 Vermont birds and we both wanted him to get three more.  He had picked out a great birding location in Vermont, West Rutland Marsh, but it was raining and we did not get the reprieve that was predicted.  Not wanting to admit defeat, Derek dashed out in the rain for just a moment before deciding that the thunder was closer than desired.  So, our last birding effort was a bust, but we had a nice dinner at a cute little diner and got House Sparrow for our Vermont lists while parking.

West Rutland Marsh. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

West Rutland Marsh. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

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When I committed to this trip nearly a year ago, I checked to see if any life birds would be possible.  I found three possibilities – Spruce Grouse, Northern Goshawk, and Little Gull.  They were all far from guaranteed; the Spruce Grouse would be nearly impossible.  But, I wanted to try, so I made plans to hire Joan Collins, owner of Adirondack Avian Expeditions.  The original plan was for Joan, David, and I to spend Friday looking for my birds, but Derek had joined our group since that plan was made.  The weather also affected our plans with rain forecast for Friday, so Derek and I were guided by Joan on Thursday.  We added a few birds to our wish list – Black-backed Woodpecker, which would be a life bird for Derek, Black-billed Cuckoo because it’s a cool bird and we had not seen it often enough, and Boreal Chickadee because Derek had not seen it in the US.

We saw several Black-and-White Warblers in the mixed flocks that we encountered. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw several Black-and-White Warblers in the mixed flocks that we encountered. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Joan picked Derek and me up at 5:30 AM on August 15.  After a quick stop for breakfast (to eat on the way), we headed to Spring Pond Bog, a conglomeration of properties owned by hunt clubs, a small bit of private land, and The Nature Conservancy (Spring Pond Bog Preserve).  There is only one entrance into this area with a manned security gate.  We began seeing birds on the entrance road before we even got to the gate.  We had our first mixed flock of the day with several warblers.  We also saw a pair of Red Crossbills and a Blackburnian Warbler dustbathing in the gravel road.

Red Crossbill (male). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Red Crossbill (male). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Joan soon heard both a Black-backed Woodpecker and a Black-billed Cuckoo calling.  The woodpecker did not cooperate, but the cuckoo could not have been much more accommodating.  He gave us good views on both sides of the road and loudly sang for 20 minutes, “coo-coo-coo coo-coo-coo.”

Black-billed Cuckoo. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Black-billed Cuckoo. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Early in the day we saw this very young sparrow.  Initially I thought it was a White-throated Sparrow, but now I’m not certain.  It will join the list of things to research after the trip.  Babies frequently look so different from adults that identification of even common species can be a challenge, especially with species that do not breed where we live.

Juvenile sparrow [Update: it has been identified by experts as a Song Sparrow.]

Juvenile sparrow [Update: it has been identified by experts as a Song Sparrow.]

We finally made it to the gate and were waved through as Joan has permission from The Nature Conservancy to use their property.  The entire area is beautiful and much more birdy than any place Derek and I had visited earlier in our trip.

Derek and Joan looking for waterfowl on Rock Lake

Derek and Joan looking for waterfowl on Rock Lake

The entire day was wonderful and filled with surprises. Joan and Derek may have seen a Northern Goshawk quickly fly over a wetland and into the trees, but I was on the wrong side of the car for even a quick glimpse.  However, the rarest bird of the day was amazingly a Black Vulture.  There are only two or three reports of this species in the Adirondacks. In birding, rarity is mostly about location and Black Vulture is a more southern species, but its range is slowly expanding northward.

We frequently heard Hermit Thrushes singing throughout the day.  We had a few views of the birds, too.  This one held onto his beakful of bugs the entire time we watched.  It seemed as if he were saying “Would you hurry up and leave already so that I can feed my babies.”

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We could have spent days exploring Spring Pond Bog, but we had to leave a little before 4:00 PM so that we could drive to Albany to pick up David and Derek’s car at the airport (where we had left it four days earlier).  The three of us had dinner together a little north of the airport and then we drove back to Tupper Lake.  The drive would normally take an hour on the Interstate and then another hour and a half on two-lane county roads, but the rain and fog made it even longer.  David and I got back shortly before midnight and Derek pulled in 20 minutes later at 12:15 AM.  It was a long day!  But there would be no rest for us as we had made plans to go out with Joan again on Friday.  The weather forecast had changed to give us a dry window between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM to look for Black-backed Woodpecker at another location that Joan said was more reliable.

We met Joan as planned and started with roadside birding after picking up food for breakfast and lunch.

Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Within a few minutes Joan heard a Black-backed Woodpecker across the road.  She gestured towards the thick forest and said something like “You guys are OK with going in there, aren’t you”?  We all said yes and then Joan ran up the side of the road and plunged into the woods.

Bushwhacking through boreal forest was worth it, though, for Joan found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers and we saw both the male and female well.  We would never have found birds at this location on our own.  Joan’s hearing is supernatural and her knowledge of these woodpeckers and their behavior were directly responsible for our encounter with them.

Black-backed Woodpecker (female). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Black-backed Woodpecker (female). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We ran into an old snowmobile road and used it off and on while following the woodpeckers and then we finally walked on it back to the highway.  We found other treasures besides the woodpeckers in those deep woods.

Red eft, the juvenile stage of Eastern (red-spotted) newt. These widespread, native salamanders of eastern North America can live for 12-15 years!

Red eft, the juvenile stage of Eastern (red-spotted) newt. These widespread, native salamanders of eastern North America can live for 12-15 years!

Wood Frog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Wood Frog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Later Joan told us about the breeding behavior of Black-backed Woodpeckers.  The male excavates the nest.  He does all of the nighttime incubation and most of the daytime incubation.  He also does most of the feeding.  Joan said she has rarely seen a female feed young.  She described the females as lazy and told one fascinating story.  A female flew in and landed near her nest tree with food in her beak.  A juvenile in the nest was screaming to be fed.  The female sat there a few moments, ate the insects she had been holding, and then flew away.

After we had our fill of woodpeckers, we drove to another roadside birding location to look for Boreal Chickadees.  Amazingly, we found over a dozen of these adorable little birds.  Joan said that specific location is the only place that she has ever seen so many in one area.

Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We also saw quite a few warblers along the roadside with the chickadees and other birds during the day.  The rain held off a little longer than expected and we were able to keep birding until after 4:00 PM.  Our two days with Joan were the highlight of our trip.  Joan Collins is phenomenal and we highly recommend her as a birding guide in the Adirondacks.

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My friend David will begin participating in Cycle Adirondacks’s Ultimate Cycling Vacation in a few days.  When he signed up nearly a year ago, he asked if I’d like to come along to give him a little extra support in case it’s needed.  He suggested that I might also see a few birds.  So, of course, I said “yes.”  And then a couple of weeks ago the birding part of the plan really came together when my birding buddy, Derek, said that he would like to go for a few days, too.

House Wren

House Wren

I left home yesterday morning, Saturday, August 10, and drove to Derek’s place just north of Baltimore.  It was mainly a travel day, but I did make a few stops to look for birds in new counties.  First was the lovely Walrond Park in Roanoke, Virginia, that Derek suggested.  The beautiful park had wonderful habitat and looked as if it should have been teeming with birds, but it was rather quiet late on a hot August morning.  I didn’t see much other than Gray Catbirds and a little House Wren family.

I had somewhat better luck at McCormick’s Farms farther north in Virginia, finding three Green Herons in one little pond along with a Great Blue Heron and a Belted Kingfisher.

The old mill at McCormick Farms

The old mill at McCormick’s Farms

My final stop yesterday was to look for a Pectoral Sandpiper behind a Chick-fil-A in West Virginia, but my search was unsuccessful.  However, I did enjoy these butterflies “puddling” in wet areas of the mostly dried-up pond.

One of several kaleidoscopes of butterflies that I saw in Ranson, West Virginia. This group contains Orange Sulphurs and probably a few Clouded Sulphurs as well.

One of several kaleidoscopes of butterflies that I saw in Ranson, West Virginia. This group contains Orange Sulphurs and probably a few Clouded Sulphurs as well.

Today was another travel day as Derek and I drove north.  But there were a couple of significant differences.  First, the weather was just perfect today, a very welcome relief from the hot temps at home.  Second, I got birds in THREE new states! I added New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to the list of states that I have birded.

In Connecticut we walked a converted railroad path over a wetland and through some woods where we saw many Gray Catbirds, Cedar Waxwings, oodles of American Goldfinches, and a young Great Blue Heron on top of an electrical post.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Our first stop in Massachusetts was the delightful Bartholomew’s Cobble, nationally recognized for one of the greatest diversities of ferns in North America.  We saw no ferns, and while we saw some nice birds, the highlight was gorgeous Giant Swallowtail Butterflies.

The Bartholomew’s Cobble Visitor Center

The Bartholomew’s Cobble Visitor Center

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Tonight we are on the north side of Albany, New York.  Tomorrow we keep heading north.  Will we find more butterflies?  More birds?  Other critters?  Follow us and share our adventure.

A Cottontail seen in Connecticut today

A Cottontail seen in Connecticut today

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After the Zoothera Birding trip to Yunnan, I flew to Shenzhen on February 2 to visit with my son Dave and his girlfriend Rachel.  The timing was perfect as it allowed me to join Rachel’s family for the celebration of Chinese New Year, the quintessential food and family holiday.  Many stores and businesses close for the week-long holiday, commonly called Spring Festival in China, so that people can return to their home towns to celebrate with their families.  The holiday starts with a huge meal on New Year’s Eve.  Our table was overflowing with plain boiled chicken served with ginger-green onion dip, braised prawns, roasted goose, sautéed Chinese cabbage with vermicelli, steamed Turbot fish, stir-fry vegetables, fried oysters, and chicken soup.  Everything was delicious, but we could not eat it all.  I later learned that it’s part of the tradition to have leftovers so that there is plenty to eat without any cooking or other work on the first day of the new year.

Dazzling decorations in Shenzhen celebrate Spring Festival

Dazzling decorations in Shenzhen celebrate Spring Festival

When I was not spending time with Dave or Rachel, I was free to go birding in Shenzhen’s parks.  This was my fifth trip to China and I have become very comfortable going out by myself.  I don’t see a lot of species, but it’s very satisfying to find them myself.  And, I love those birds!  It’s like visiting old friends. (more…)

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