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

Traveling up the Yorkin River

Traveling up the Yorkin River

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

Our home for the night

Our home for the night

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

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

Crested Guan

Crested Guan

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

Red-lored Parrot

Red-lored Parrot

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

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

The beautiful Yorkin River

The beautiful Yorkin River

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

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk

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

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

 

Common Today-Flycatcher

Common Today-Flycatcher

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

Golden-olive Woodpecker (female)

Golden-olive Woodpecker (female)

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

Barred Antshrike

Barred Antshrike

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

Mistletoe Tyrannulet

Mistletoe Tyrannulet

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

Laughing Falcon

Laughing Falcon

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

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

Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal

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

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

Rufous-naped Wren

Rufous-naped Wren

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

Collared Plover

Collared Plover

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

Amanda making breakfast for us in our open-air kitchen

Amanda making breakfast for us in our open-air kitchen

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

The patio on the other side of our house

The patio on the other side of our house

Eyelash Viper

Eyelash Viper

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

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

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

Gray-capped Flycatcher

Gray-capped Flycatcher

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

Black River Turtles

Black River Turtles

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

Spectacled Caiman

Spectacled Caiman

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

Sunbittern

Sunbittern

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

Great Green Macaws

Great Green Macaws

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

Emerald Basilisk

Emerald Basilisk

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

Orange Rusty Wandering Spider, Cupiennius getazi

Orange Rusty Wandering Spider, Cupiennius getazi

There were pretty flowers in the rainforest, too.

Swamp Lily, Crinum erubescens

Swamp Lily, Crinum erubescens

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

American Pygmy Kingfisher

American Pygmy Kingfisher

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

White-faced Capuchin Monkey

White-faced Capuchin Monkey

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

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

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

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

Ring-billed Gulls

Ring-billed Gulls

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

A poor photo of an amazing Osprey hovering over Lake Champlain

A poor photo of an amazing Osprey hovering over Lake Champlain

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

A chipmunk who's chirping almost fooled me

A chipmunk who’s chirping almost fooled me

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

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

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

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

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

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

David enjoys the view from a a stop on Whiteface Mountain

David enjoys the view from a a stop on Whiteface Mountain

Another scenic view from the road up Whiteface Mountain

Another scenic view from the road up Whiteface Mountain

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

The beautiful waterfall at High Falls Gorge

The beautiful waterfall at High Falls Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David's rides took him past numerous waterfalls

David’s rides took him past numerous waterfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Black-backed Woodpecker is one of the most highly desired birds in the Adirondacks.  These woodpeckers are boreal specialists with most of their range in Canada.  They feed mainly on the larvae of wood-boring beetles which they can actually hear in the depths of the tree.  Their long bills allow them to reach deep under the bark to reach their prey.  Bloomingdale Bog has many reports of the woodpecker and it is also a good place to see other boreal species like Boreal Chickadee and Canada Jay.

A Canada Jay surveys the area

A Canada Jay surveys the area.

Derek and I spent all morning in this area on Wednesday.  It is nice easy birding with dirt roads and well-maintained wide trails.  We were not successful with our search for Black-backed Woodpecker, but we thoroughly enjoyed birding this area.  We saw Canada Jays and other northern breeding birds – Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, and Black-capped Chickadees.

Canadian Bunchberry, a member of the dogwood family, was abundant along the roadsides in the bog

Canadian Bunchberry, a member of the dogwood family, was abundant along the roadsides in the bog.

We also saw pretty Bottle Gentian along the roadsides

We also saw pretty Bottle Gentian along the roadsides.

Canada Jays may be one of my favorite birds; they certainly rank high on the list of birds that are fun.  These jays are naturally inquisitive, but 20 years of hand feeding at Bloomingdale Bog has resulted in especially tame birds.  At this location, Canada Jays will eat out of your hand.  Here is Derek with an offering of raisins, a favorite food of the jays.

Offering accepted

Offering accepted

After we finished playing with the Canada Jays, we headed north on the trail towards a small wetland. We ran into our first warbler wave of the day, which was a mixed flock of birds ranging from Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches to a Nashville Warbler, Blue-headed Vireos, and Magnolia Warblers.

We then had a quick lunch and checked out nearby Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC).  The hiking trails were gorgeous.

Along the Boreal Trail at Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretive Center

Along the Boreal Trail at Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center

An interesting woodland wildflower we saw there was Indian Pipe, also called Ghost Pipe or Ghost Plant, which grows in mature moist shaded forests throughout most of North America.  This plant is unusual in that it is entirely white and able to survive without the green pigment chlorophyll.  Instead of generating energy from sunlight, it is parasitic.  Its hosts are certain fungi that are mycorrhizal with tree roots.

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe

The Boreal Trail at Paul Smith’s VIC leads to a lovely bog where we saw Pitcher Plants.

Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea, at the VIC

Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea, at the VIC

The friendly folks at the VIC identified several wildflowers that Derek photographed.  We enjoyed chatting with them before and after our walks about the local birds, plants, and the Adirondacks and found them very helpful.

Derek and I really liked this area of the Adirondacks and we were happy that we would have two and a half more days here.

Red squirrel at Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretive Center

Red squirrel at Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center

Derek and I spent Monday and Tuesday driving around the north end of Lake Champlain, first north up through Vermont, then across Quebec and finally south into New York.  Our first major stop on Monday morning was Dead Creek WMA IBA in Vermont.  We hoped the birds we saw there would include shorebirds, but this stop was the first of many that was not what we expected.  It was beautiful, but we did not even see any shorebird habitat.  We tallied only 13 species, all birds that we see at home in North Carolina or Maryland – robins, goldfinches, an Osprey.

We saw shrubs with red berries everywhere like this one with a Song Sparrow at Dead Creek WMA IBA.

We saw shrubs with red berries everywhere like this one with a Song Sparrow at Dead Creek WMA IBA.

Our next stop was Charlotte Town Beach which proved to be an even bigger surprise.  This tiny beach on the edge of the lake with more trees than sand is an eBird hotspot with 226 species reported from over 2,600 checklists.  It is renowned by the local birding community as one of the best places on Lake Champlain for lake watching.  A Little Gull had been reported here recently and I need it for a life bird.  However, we saw just a few Ring-billed Gulls and only four other species.

The view from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The view from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The north end of Lake Champlain contains several islands and we thought it would be fun to drive through them.  Again, we were surprised and mildly disappointed as the islands were so large we could not see water except when crossing the bridges from one island to the next.  Our longest stop was at South Hero Marsh Trail.  We had our first of several experiences trying to track down the bird making sounds that we could not identify.  After ten minutes of careful searching, we found the source of the sounds under dense vegetation on the edge of a wetland – a chipmunk!

Green Heron in the swamp along the South Hero Marsh Trail

Green Heron in the swamp along the South Hero Marsh Trail

A real bird that we saw was a Merlin who flew in as we were heading back.  She landed on top of a snag and began eating dinner.  We waited until she was finished before we continued along the trail so that we would not flush her and cause her to lose her meal.  Later scrutiny of our photos showed that her “dinner” was only an appetizer or dessert – a dragonfly!

Merlin on the South Hero Marsh Trail

Merlin on the South Hero Marsh Trail

We finished the day with an American White Pelican at Campbell Bay, a rare bird for Vermont.  We were lucky to get good looks at the bird in intermittent drizzle and still enough light that we could see Canada across the bay.

On Tuesday morning, we birded at St. Albans Bay Town Park, Vermont.  We finally found a few shorebirds, two Least Sandpipers and five Semipalmated Plovers.  This helped me reach my goal of 50 species for Vermont.

Semipalmated Plover in early morning light at St. Albans Bay Town Park

Semipalmated Plover in early morning light at St. Albans Bay Town Park

 

American Redstart at St. Albans Bay Town Park

American Redstart at St. Albans Bay Town Park

We continued north into Canada where our first birding stop was Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary, just across the border.  The entrance to the park was so overgrown with weeds that I drove by it twice before I could find it.  The parking area and trails were also overgrown, but this mostly boreal forest park is beautiful.  We observed a good variety of birds ranging from southern birds such as Red-bellied Woodpecker to more northern breeders like an American Bittern that Derek found.  We also saw an Osprey and our only Bald Eagle for the trip so far.

Part of a beautiful large field in the middle of Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary

Part of a beautiful large field in the middle of Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary

A quick stop at Parc Jamison to look for shorebirds produced no shorebirds, but surprised us with a Great Egret.

McFee Brook Interpretive Center was next, with signs only in French “Centre d’interprétation du ruisseau McFee.” This was a small park with a long boardwalk over a wetland.  I imagined that it must be an excellent place to see birds on a spring morning.

A Great Blue Heron in a small pond at McFee Brook Interpretive Center

A Great Blue Heron in a small pond at McFee Brook Interpretive Center

We had lunch at Cantine Lolo in Lacolle before leaving Canada.  We ate a simple meal while we sat outside at a picnic table and added a few more birds to our Canada list.  The menu was in French only and the person taking our orders had poor English language skills.  However, another customer overheard Derek placing our order and came to his aid.

After eating we turned south and back into the US.  Beekmantown Rest Area provided a nice welcome home with clean restrooms and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at its feeders.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at a New York rest area. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at a New York rest area. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Our last stop of the day and was Noblewood Park where we looked for a Little Gull that had been reported.  This park is almost directly across Lake Champlain from Charlotte Town Beach where we had looked for the gull the previous day.  The entrance is through thick woods and after parking it’s about a half-mile walk to the beach through more trees.  The gull had been seen much closer here but we did not see one among the 180 Bonaparte’s Gulls resting on the sand bar not too far from shore.  Little Gull is an uncommon but annual visitor to the lake, so I still hope to see one before the trip is over.

The sandbar seen from the beach at Noblewood Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The sandbar seen from the beach at Noblewood Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We finished the day with a drive to Tupper Lake, deep in the Adirondacks, where we would spend the next four nights.

 

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

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. Continue Reading »

Derek and I planned two days after the official Field Guides trip to bird on our own so that we could look for a few extra birds.  We ventured quite far from Denver, but since we were starting and ending those two days in Denver, Derek had been referring to them as “Denver Days” throughout the trip.  There were a lot of possibilities – try for slightly early Virginia’s Warbler or Lark Bunting, search for a Northern Goshawk, chase the vagrant Pacific Wren or Mexican Duck that had been reported, or try to get better views and photos of the Williamson’s Sapsucker.  We finally decided to head towards New Mexico where we had a chance for both new birds and a new state for me plus a couple of spots where we could look for Western Screech-Owl on our way.

We started by heading south from Denver to Memorial Park & Prospect Lake near Colorado Springs to look for a Greater White-fronted Goose that had been reported there for several days.  The goose was rare for that date and location, so it sounded like a fun stop.  In one and a half hours at the park we found 30 species of birds including the Greater White-fronted Goose.

Greater White-fronted Goose. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Greater White-fronted Goose. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

As a bonus, we also saw two “rare” Cackling Geese plus two geese that we couldn’t confidently ascribe to either species.  Later we noted that other birders had also reported two as “Cackling/Canada Goose.”  As much as we like to pin down all our sightings to species, sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Cackling Geese with a Canada Goose in the foreground. Once considered the same species, Canada and Cackling Goose were split in 2004.

Cackling Geese with a Canada Goose in the foreground. Once considered the same species, Canada and Cackling Goose were split in 2004.

The prettiest birds there were a group of American Avocets in colorful breeding plumage.  In the East, we see them more frequently in their black-and-white winter plumage.

American Avocets. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

American Avocets. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We also saw several gulls at the park, including California Gulls, which are rare in the East, so neither of us see them often.  The bird’s dark eye compared to a Ring-billed Gull’s light eye is a holy grail for Eastern gullwatchers picking through massive flocks of the latter species every winter.

Adult California Gull

Adult California Gull

Next it was on to Clear Springs Ranch to look for the Western Screech-Owl that we missed on the very first stop of the Field Guides tour ten days earlier.  Despite an hour of searching in much better weather, we failed to find the owl.

We continued south and a little west to another location that had recent reports of a Western Screech-Owl.  This time we had exact directions right to the tree where the owl roosted, so we were feeling more confident.  Did I mention that this would be a life bird for both Derek and me?  We really wanted this bird.  The location was the lovely Cañon City Riverwalk along the Arkansas River.  We found the tree right away, but the owl did not have his head poking out of his hole in the tree.  After a few minutes, Derek went to check the other end of the trail and I stayed and kept my eye on the tree.  A walker came by and told me that she had seen the owl within the past week.

We saw the Audubon's subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler with their bright yellow throats frequently during our trip. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw the Audubon’s subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler with their bright yellow throats frequently during our trip. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Derek came back and we decided to bird around the other end of the trail and check for the Screech-Owl again before dark.  I couldn’t decide whether or not I needed my sweater in the cool evening air, so on my second trip to the car, Derek looked around little Sell Lake to kill time while waiting for me.  I got my sweater and walked over to Derek.  He instructed me to look in the branches of a fallen tree on the edge of the pond and tell him what I saw.  “A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron,” I replied.  Derek knew what the bird was, but he could barely believe his eyes.  This is an eastern and coastal species with only a handful of reports west of the Rockies except for California.  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a Colorado review species; there were fewer than 40 reports ever for the state and a sighting should be reported formally to the Colorado Bird Records Committee.  We got some poor photos and quickly submitted an eBird checklist.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the morning after our discovery. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the morning after our discovery. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We then checked for the Western Screech-Owl again with no luck.  But, we did see a Great Horned Owl put on a little show.  Blue Jays mobbed the owl who gave chase to the jays and then flew into a branch.  He flopped to the ground, flew back up, preened, and finally flew away.  My photo is not the best quality due to the low light, but it was clear that this particular owl looked different than the ones we were used to seeing in the East.  Birds of North American Online says “Geographic variation in appearance moderate and complex.”  It also states that there are 15 subspecies and “moderately pale populations occur in the s. Rocky Mts.”  So, it wasn’t our much-wanted Western Screech-Owl, but it was fun to see a new variation and learn more about this widespread owl that occurs in all 49 continental states and parts of Central and South America.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

We had lingered on the trail well into darkness, so we decided to stay in Cañon City for the night so that we could have one more chance to look for the screech-owl again in the morning.  Alas, we did not have any luck with the owl then either, but Derek did get a much better photo of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We also met a couple of local birders who had received eBird alerts for the night-heron and were very appreciative of our timely report.  I’m sure it was a new county bird for them and perhaps a new species for their state lists.  Over the next week and a half, the night-heron would be seen by twenty other birders.

So, now we had less than a day to get to New Mexico, find some birds, and get back to the Denver airport that evening for our flight back to Baltimore.  After birding the Cañon City Riverwalk again, we headed to Maxwell NWR in New Mexico.  We drove around Lake 13 and saw quite a few nice birds including this Franklin’s Gull.

Franklin's Gull in gorgeous breeding plumage. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Franklin’s Gull in gorgeous breeding plumage. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

At a little drier part of the NWR, we had a couple of exciting sightings.  First was a Cassin’s Kingbird, a life bird for Derek and a completely unexpected surprise.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

The kingbird was quickly followed by a life mammal for me, Black-tailed Jackrabbit.  I was thrilled to finally see this rabbit, especially since most of the Field Guides group had seen one darting through the brush at a rest stop.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Vesper Sparrows are very common in the West and we had one in this area.

Vesper Sparrow. Can you see why this bird was once called the Bay-winged Bunting? Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Vesper Sparrow. Can you see why this bird was once called the Bay-winged Bunting? Photo by Derek Hudgins.

After leaving Maxwell NWR, we started the drive north, but made one more stop in New Mexico at Climax Canyon Park & Nature Trail.

The trail at Climax Canyon Park & Nature Trail is up the side of a mountain. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The trail at Climax Canyon Park & Nature Trail is up the side of a mountain. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

As we started up the mountain, I caught a glimpse of something on the side of the trail.  He is camouflaged so well that I doubt I would have seen this little lizard if he hadn’t displayed his dewlap.  After we got home, Derek and I tried to identify him to species, but there is too little difference between several closely related species in this genus, Sceloporus, to be sure.  Whether it’s a Prairie Lizard, Southwest Fence Lizard, or a Plateau Fence Lizard, it’s a life lizard for both of us.

A male lizard in the genus Sceloporus. You can just barely see his blue belly.

A male lizard in the genus Sceloporus. You can just barely see his blue belly.

There were not a lot of birds here in the middle of the day, but we were happy to see a Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay and a Bushtit.  Bushtits are busy little birds who never hold still.  I am still waiting to get a decent photo, but Derek was quick enough to get a shot of this one.

Bushtit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Bushtit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

What an encore for the amazing Field Guides grouse trip!  Derek and I tallied our Denver Days bonuses as we drove to the airport – forty New Mexico birds for Shelley, 23 new NM birds for Derek (who had previously visited the state), a Cassin’s Kingbird life bird for Derek, Black-tailed Jackrabbit life mammal for Shelley, a fascinating lizard, and a Colorado Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We were thankful to have had two more days to appreciate the incredible wildlife and scenery of the American West.

American Red Squirrel. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

American Red Squirrel. Photo by Derek Hudgins.