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Posts Tagged ‘Bald Eagle’

I woke up on March 21 to find a text message from my birding pal Derek.  Two spots were available on the Field Guides grouse tour in April; would I like to go?  Well, yes, of course, I would like to go!  I know several people who have done the “chicken run” on their own, but I had no desire to find the best locations, make the arrangements, and then drive 2,500 miles getting to all the leks.  I had not planned to take another birding trip so soon after China, but this was too good to pass up.  I responded “Yes!” to Derek and a couple of hours later we were both officially signed up for the trip.

I had never been to Colorado and I was looking forward to seeing rugged landscapes like this.

I had never been to Colorado and I was looking forward to seeing rugged landscapes like this.

The focus of the trip would be viewing Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens and three additional species of grouse on their leks.  You might be wondering “What’s a lek?”  While a dictionary defines a lek simply as a “communal area in which two or more males of a species perform courtship displays,” they are far more.  Leks are hotbeds of social activity excitingly described in the Audubon article, What the Heck Is a Lek? The Quirkiest Mating Party on Earth.  In between the leks, we would search for several other uncommon species of birds that are highly-sought by birders.  Additionally, this trip usually provides interesting sightings of mammals.

Here’s a preview of the Greater Prairie-Chickens that we would soon be watching on a lek at a cattle ranch in Colorado.

Derek and I wanted to stay a couple of extra days in Colorado after the tour to look for any species that we might have missed or just get in a little more birding.  We spent two hours on the phone searching for flights from Baltimore for Derek and compatible flights from Greensboro for me.  We couldn’t seem to make it work, so we decided that I would just drive up to Baltimore and we’d fly to Denver together from there.

A Bald Eagle, our national bird, in our nation's capital

A Bald Eagle, our national bird, in our nation’s capital

I arrived in Maryland a day early, supposedly to take it easy and rest for the big trip.  But, of course, our birding obsessions would not allow any downtime.  I’m currently trying to get birds in all of the lower 48 states.  Derek assured me that the District of Columbia counts as a state-level entity, so we spent our first day there.  We had fun despite the intermittent rain and I got 43 species, not bad considering that the expected waterfowl were absent.  Derek even got two new D.C. birds, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Vesper Sparrow.

The next morning, April 13, we caught an early flight to Denver and rented a car so that we could do a little birding before officially starting the tour later that afternoon.  We checked out nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR where we had a nice transition to Western birds.  It was fun seeing Black-billed Magpie, Say’s Phoebe, and Western Meadowlark alongside many birds that we also see in the East like American Avocets.  We were also excited to see the first of three prairie dog species that we would encounter during the trip.

I had a close view of a Red-tailed Hawk on our first afternoon in Colorado. They were very common and we would see too many to count during the coming days.

I had a close view of a Red-tailed Hawk on our first afternoon in Colorado. They were very common and we would see too many to count during the coming days.

At 2:30 PM, we met the other eleven participants and our trip leaders, Cory Gregory and Doug Gochfeld. We piled into the two fifteen-passenger vans that would be home for the next 10 days and after quick introductions we were on our way towards Kansas.  I was happy that Cory was one of the leaders as I had met him in Alaska (Alaska 2015: “The Pit Stop is Cancelled”) and knew that he was a great guy in addition to an expert birder.  On our way to Pueblo, Colorado, where we spent the first night, we stopped to look for Western Screech-Owl in a driving rain that eventually turned to snow.  We joked about the weather throughout the trip, saying that we experienced everything except a tornado.  Sadly, we did not have any luck with the Screech-Owl; this was one of the few misses of the trip.

Curve-billed Thrasher in the early morning fog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Curve-billed Thrasher in the early morning fog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

On the first full day of the trip, we enjoyed many stops for birding as we continued to head east towards Kansas.  Our first stop was magical, almost spiritual, as we listened to a Curve-billed Thrasher singing in the early morning light.  No other vehicles were on our section of the gravel road and we heard no sounds of civilization; it was just us and the birds.

As the fog dissipated, we continued down the road, getting our first of many excellent views of Pronghorn, an iconic symbol of the West.  Suddenly Derek called out a bird that had been missed.  We backed up and saw a singing Scaled Quail on a cholla cactus on the side of the road.  In this awesome encounter, the bird stayed in that spot for a while, then hopped down, ran across the road, and perched up on a barbed-wire fence where he continued to sing.  We were all thrilled with close looks at this gorgeous bird, which was later voted one of the group favorites for the trip.

Scaled Quail. Can you see why he’s sometimes called “cotton top”?

Scaled Quail. Can you see why he’s sometimes called “cotton top”?

Later that day, we picked up more classic Western species like Yellow-headed Blackbird, Clark’s Grebe, and Lewis’s Woodpecker.  The best part of the afternoon was birding at Neenoshe Reservoir, where we met Colorado birding legend Tony Leukering and Derek got life bird #1,000 – Long-billed Curlew.

Derek's photo of his 1,000th life bird, Long-billed Curlew at Neenoshe Reservoir.

Derek’s photo of his 1,000th life bird, Long-billed Curlew at Neenoshe Reservoir.

The following day, April 15, we visited our first lek, on a Nature Conservancy property in Kansas, to observe Lesser Prairie-Chickens.  We followed the usual protocol for lek viewing and arrived at the blind well before dawn.  We settled into our places on the bench in the metal blind and sat as quietly as possible for the next few hours.  We heard the chickens in the darkness before we saw them.  With the rising sun, silhouettes became visible.  Finally, we saw the entire drama play out before our eyes as the prairie-chickens danced the same dances and observed the same mating rituals as they have for thousands of years.

Female Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Female Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Sadly, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has suffered huge population declines since the 1800’s.  The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists the species as “vulnerable” due to its restricted and patchy range.  In 2014, it was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but that ruling was overturned the following year.  Legal battles to protect the Lesser Prairie-Chicken have continued since with a lawsuit to make a decision on listing the species as endangered or threatened likely to be filed soon.  Here is the most current information that I could find, which includes both a biological and legal history.  Regardless of legal status, the prairie-chickens are clearly losing ground due to habitat loss with global warming looming as another threat to their survival.  Cory mused that the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is the most likely bird in the lower 48 states to go extinct in our lifetimes.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

After viewing the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, we turned back West and birded along the way to Wray, Colorado, with a quick stop in Nebraska, which gave one participant her last state to be visited.  After checking into our hotel, we headed over to the Bledsoe Cattle Ranch for a warm welcome from Bob Bledsoe, a partner in the family-run business.  The ranch has won many awards, but we were also impressed by the Bledsoe’s good stewardship of the land which hosts about 100 Greater Prairie-Chicken leks on its 75,000 acres according to Bob’s estimate. Bob was a good representative for the fascinating Bledsoe family; we enjoyed Bob’s stories and our Q&A session.

On April 16, we arose in the wee hours again, this time to see Greater Prairie-Chickens on the Bledsoe ranch.  The routine was similar, arriving before dawn, but this time we watched the birds from the vans and two pick-up trucks.  Derek and I were lucky to get one truck to ourselves, a great help in getting photos.  As with the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, the birds displayed mere feet from us as we quietly watched.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens challenge each other on the lek.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens challenge each other on the lek.

Greater Prairie-Chickens are very similar to Lesser Prairie-Chickens, but slightly larger.  The most noticeable difference is that the gular air sac on the side of the neck is orange to yellow during the breeding season while the air sac of the male Lesser Prairie-Chicken is red.  Although numbers of Greater Prairie-Chickens have declined, they have a wider range and larger, more secure population than Lesser Prairie-Chickens.

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken booming on the lek.

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken booming on the lek.

This charismatic species was my favorite member of the grouse family.  Not only were they beautiful and interesting birds, but the males put on the best vocal show with their booming, cackling, and whooping while dancing and strutting.  Greater Prairie-Chickens are so well-known for their booming sounds that their leks are often referred to as “booming grounds.”

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens step up their game as they fight for the best territories on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens step up their game as they fight for the best territories on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the bizarre lek mating system evolved.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection, commonly referred to as survival of the fittest, explains much about evolution, but it can’t explain how non-adaptive characteristics arise.  Features such as the peacock’s long tail actually harm survival by making it difficult to flee from predators.  Darwin realized this and developed his second theory, sexual selection, to explain the emergence of traits which do not aid and may even hinder survival, but give one individual an advantage over other individuals of the same species in obtaining mates.  Darwin suggested two mechanisms of sexual selection: mate choice and competition for mates.  Competition for mates (especially among males) is obvious and generally accepted by scientists as a function of sexual selection.  But mate selection is more complicated.  In his popular book, The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum passionately argues that it’s the female’s innate sense of beauty that explains mate choice, but other scientists disagree.  Many questions remain and grouse are frequently studied in ongoing research on sexual selection.  During the ten days of the grouse tour, we would simply thrill in the displays of the males strutting their stuff and the discerning females making their choices.

Two female Lesser Prairie-Chickens evaluate their choices. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Two female Lesser Prairie-Chickens evaluate their choices. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw a few females at both prairie-chicken leks and several others in our group observed mating.  They reported that all the females choose the same male.  This is typical; the dominant couple of males in a given lek will likely mate with about 90% of the females.  The females then leave to build a nest, incubate their eggs, and raise the chicks on their own without any help from the male.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Derek.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Derek.

We continued to enjoy sightings of many other species as we drove back to Denver.  The group liked this Great Horned Owl on her nest that we stopped to observe on our way out of the Bledsoe ranch.  Highlights later that day were Mountain Plovers, Burrowing Owls, and a large flock of 150 McCown’s Longspurs at Pawnee National Grassland.  The longspurs were more distant than we would have liked, but, along with the Mountain Plovers, they were life birds for several in our group.

Next on this wonderful trip – grouse leks!  Stay tuned for more Colorado grouse tour adventures.

 

Driving through Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Driving through Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

 

 

 

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Driving through Nebraska was monotonous compared to the more western states.  The view from the highways was nothing but agricultural fields for mile after mile.  I did not even see birds from the road as I had in other areas.  However, beautiful rest areas along the Platte River were like little oases in this hot and dry land.  They had lovely trees, birds, and each one came with a history lesson about the Oregon Trail.  Here are a couple of photos taken at O’Fallon’s Bluff rest area on Interstate 80.

Crossing The Overland Trail

Crossing The Overland Trail

The Great Platte River Road

The Great Platte River Road

Late in the afternoon, I also made an unplanned stop at the Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Buffalo.  The center is most well-known for Sandhill Crane viewing on the Platte River in the spring.  It is a lovely spot along the river and even on a hot June afternoon, I easily found birds.

It was fun to see Dickcissels where they are common. These guys seem to sing all day!

It was fun to see Dickcissels where they are common. These guys seem to sing all day!

An Eastern Kingbird enjoys its perch over the Platte River.

An Eastern Kingbird enjoys its perch over the Platte River.

On Wednesday, it was on to the next state – Missouri. Again, it took most of a day to drive through one state. But, I did start the morning at Loess Bluffs NWR, which I suspect may be one of the best wildlife refuges in the country.  I was pleased with the 32 species that I found in two hours without getting out of the car.  But when I checked eBird, I saw that the previous day two guys had recorded 97 species!  Loess Bluffs is definitely on my list of places to go again.

An adult Bald Eagle at Loess Bluffs NWR in Missouri.

An adult Bald Eagle at Loess Bluffs NWR in Missouri.

My third and last big travel day towards home was mostly through Tennessee.  It was one of the few days that I did not do any birding at all.  I needed to be in Tellico Plains on Thursday night to help my friend, David, with his adventure – The Cherohala Challenge, a road bike event.  David successfully completed the 62-mile ride last year.  This year he would be participating in the longest ride, 115 miles up the Cherohala Skyway, through The Tail of The Dragon, an 11-mile stretch of US-129 with 318 curves, and then back to Tellico Plains.

David stopping to pose with the dragon during the ride on Saturday.

David stopping to pose with the dragon during the ride on Saturday.

On Friday, we drove the route in the car and I marked every stop in my GPS.  We had a very nice time and finished with a few hours to spare, so we went in search of Tennessee birds for my list obsession.  I randomly choose an eBird hotspot not too far away.  At first it appeared to be a dead-end road with a path to the river at the end.  We walked the path and were lucky to see both White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos as well as an Orchard Oriole.  Those birds helped me reach one of my goals – over 50 species for Tennessee.  The path led to Chota Memorial,  a full scale representation of the townhouse, or council house, originally erected by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, a completely unexpected and interesting surprise.

Chota Memorial lies along Little Tellico River.

Chota Memorial lies along Little Tellico River.

We were up at 5:00 AM on Saturday, the day of the big ride.  I dropped David off at the starting line and headed to the first rest stop to wait.  The volunteer was just setting up and gratefully accepted my offer to help.  I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut up fruit, and put out other goodies for the riders for an hour.  Then, it was off to the next stop to wait for David.  For over 10 hours, he rode and I did what I could to help my friend and others with food, water, and encouragement.

Coming into a rest stop on the Cherohala Skyway.

Coming into a rest stop on the Cherohala Skyway.

At the toughest part of the ride – 8 miles at a very steep grade to the highest point – I even gave one guy a ride because he was cramping too badly to ride that stretch of road.  Fortunately, David’s hard work training paid off and he got to the top under his own power.  After another 31 miles, he reached the finish line – tired, but extremely happy.

David was happy and smiling after riding 115 miles!

David was happy and smiling after riding 115 miles!

Sunday was a recovery day, so we did a little birding in the NC mountains. We were able to add a few birds to my county lists and see more beautiful scenery. After all my traveling this past month, I still love North Carolina.  I drove home yesterday, June 11, and that’s the end of the trail. Stay tuned for a few numbers (miles driven, species observed, etc.) and reflections on the adventure in a few days.

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Florida always calls to me in winter.  Especially this year, as I really wanted a break from the unusually cold weather we are having in North Carolina.

The only prep I did for this year’s trip was to sign up for the Space Coast Birding Festival, so imagine my surprise when I checked eBird my first night on the road.  THREE Ruffs were currently being seen in Alachua County, Florida.  And, two of them were in the Home Depot retention pond that was not a mile from Liz’s house!  I took this as a sign that the birding gods would favor me on this trip.

The male Ruff in Gainesville. With the wind blowing his neck feathers up, you get a hint of what he will look like in breeding plumage.

The male Ruff in Gainesville. With the wind blowing his neck feathers up, you get a hint of what he will look like in breeding plumage.

For my non-birding friends, Ruffs are shorebirds.  You might even call them boring when they are not in breeding plumage (and we rarely see them in breeding plumage here in the US), but they are rare and birders love rare birds.  Previously, I had seen only one Ruff in 10 years of birding, which I wrote about in A Smooth Trip for a Ruff.

With the Ruffs waiting for me in Florida, I got on the road early the next morning.  I got to Gainesville around noon and went directly to Home Depot.  It could not have been easier.  I walked over to the pond and immediately found both Ruffs, a male and a female, and shot some photos.  Birding mission accomplished, I then went to visit with my step-daughter, Liz, and my two granddaughters, Quinn and Casey.

Next it was south to Dunedin for a couple of days with my friends, David and Val.  Another rare bird awaited me near their house, 10 of them actually.  For the last two years, Brown Boobies, seabirds of tropical waters, have wintered in the unusual location of upper Tampa Bay.  David and I went in search of the boobies and found 6 of them roosting on towers in the bay shortly before dark.

The boobies were too far out for good photos, but a pair of Greater Scaup swam close by the pier at Safety Harbor. This pretty bird is the female.

The boobies were too far out for good photos, but a pair of Greater Scaup swam close by the pier at Safety Harbor. This pretty bird is the female.

The next day we went to Possum Branch, one of our favorite local birding spots.  We heard lots of Yellow-rumped Warbler chips as usual, but suddenly one higher pitched chip stood out.  We stopped and looked hard for the little bird.  David finally found an olive-colored warbler with a grayish head that looked like it had been dipped in a a light wash of yellow.  I was never able to get my eyes on that bird, but the next morning my luck would change.  David headed to work and I left for my drive to the east coast.  But, first I went to Kapok Park, another of our favorite spots.  I heard the chips again and this time I saw several of the plain little birds, which I could now confirm as Orange-crowned Warblers.  I was very happy that I even got a photo.

Orange-crowned Warbler at Kapok Park

Orange-crowned Warbler at Kapok Park

My warbler story may sound boring, but I hope not.  For what is more important, not just in birding, but in life, than the little joys of new discoveries, the sweetness of finding unexpected beauty in plainness?  All made sweeter when shared with a friend.  Life birds are great, but these magic moments are what I live for.

My next four days were filled with gulls.  I had signed up for almost all the gull field trips and workshops that the festival offered.  That’s a lot of gulls even for a normal birder, but I wanted to learn all that I could.  On Wednesday, we started with a trip to the Cocoa Landfill.  After a short introduction to the workings of the landfill, we headed out to look for birds.  We saw Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls.

Amar Ayyash and me

Amar Ayyash and me

I was signed up for the “Gull Fly-In” at 3:30 that afternoon, but Amar Ayyash, one of the trip leaders, said that he was going early and that I was welcome to go with him.  We grabbed a quick drive-thru lunch and ate in the car as we headed to Frank Rendon Park at Daytona Beach Shores.  This particular stretch of beach is popular with wintering gulls.  It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 gulls sometimes roost on the beach.  They come in big numbers late in the afternoon for a few hours before heading offshore for the night, but at 1:00 PM, there were enough birds to keep us busy.  Amar quickly found all the expected species – everything we had seen at the landfill plus Great Black-backed Gull – as well as a couple of hybrid candidates.  I tried to soak in all the information that I could, but, as a beginner, I was overwhelmed.  I took as many photos as possible for later study.

This bird has a ring on its bill, so it's a Ring-billed Gull, right? Nope, it's a Herring Gull. Most of those common field marks only apply to adults. This bird is an "adult type," probably a 4th cycle bird.

This bird has a ring on its bill, so it’s a Ring-billed Gull, right? Nope, it’s a Herring Gull. Most common field marks only apply to adults. This bird is an “adult type,” probably a 4th cycle bird, but not yet fully mature.

 

Hmm. What's this bird with the dark tip to its bill? Yep, another "adult type" Herring Gull. The smaller bird to the left is an adult Ring-billed Gull.

Hmm. What’s this bird with the dark tip to its bill? Yep, another “adult type” Herring Gull. The smaller bird to the left is an adult Ring-billed Gull.

 

A 1st cycle Great Black-backed Gull. We saw quite a few of these beautiful birds. I love the clean, crisp pattern.

A 1st cycle Great Black-backed Gull. We saw quite a few of these beautiful birds. I love the clean, crisp pattern.

 

This big, beautiful young gull is probably a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, frequently called "Nelson's Gull."

This big, beautiful young gull is probably a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, frequently called “Nelson’s Gull.”

And, all of this was before the official festival field trip even began!  After we were joined by Michael Brothers, Florida’s leading gull expert, and the 30 to 40 festival participants, we continued walking on the beach, sometimes only about 20 feet from the birds, until 6:00 PM.  We saw literally thousands of Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls and good numbers of the other species, too.  We added Iceland Gull to our list with two individuals.  A few appear in Florida most winters, but they are unusual enough to be considered rare.

Iceland Gull at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, January 24, 2018

Iceland Gull at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, January 24, 2018

The next morning, it was back to the Cocoa Landfill.  I considered skipping a second trip to the same location, but I woke up early and decided that it would be a good chance to study the Lesser Black-backed Gulls that we had seen on the first day.  After the talk about the landfill, we went to the area where everything was covered with a black tarp and water had collected on top.  There was a little shallow pool at one end and the others walked down there to see the Bonaparte’s Gulls.  I had seen them the day before, so I stayed put, fiddling with my camera, when Chris Brown, one of our guides, came to get me.  “Shelley, I think you will want to see this.”  As I hurried to where the others had gathered, the bird with a red bill immediately caught my eye.  “OMG, it’s a Black-headed Gull,” I squealed, delighted to finally see this species in the US.  And, this was a beautiful bird, a healthy-looking adult, giving us a much closer view than I’d ever had in China.

Black-headed Gull, Cocoa Landfill, January 25, 2018

Black-headed Gull, Cocoa Landfill, January 25, 2018

I enjoyed the rest of the festival, especially Amar’s gull identification workshop.  Amar is a living encyclopedia of knowledge about gulls and my goal is to learn enough that I can follow his discussions on the Facebook group, “North American Gulls” and his blog Anything Larus.

The last field trip that I’d signed up for was to Jetty Park at Cape Canaveral on Saturday morning.  The trip leaders were Amar, Jeff Gordon, and Greg Miller, one of the birders featured in the book and movie “The Big Year.”  While waiting for everyone to arrive, Greg and I quickly discovered that we are distant cousins.  It was fun to meet Greg and I’m looking forward to future discussions about our shared ancestors.

Greg Miller and me at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral

Greg Miller and me at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral

Jeff Gordon reminded me that he was a birding guide before he was ABA President when I casually asked if we might see any Northern Gannets and a few minutes later he pulled in a gorgeous adult nice and close.  I had seen thousands of them in NC, but this was a new Florida bird.  I never get tired of watching these beautiful birds plunge headfirst into the water.

Our leaders that morning were alert to anything interesting and found this Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the beach. They are not really jellyfish, but the closely-related siphonophore, a colony of individuals.

Portuguese Man o' War

Portuguese Man o’ War

Jetty Park was the end of the festival for me.  The time with Amar had significantly improved my gull knowledge and ID skills and I enjoyed seeing old friends and making new ones.  But, my time in Florida was not quite up yet.

What's a trip to Florida without a Loggerhead Shrike? I observed this bird at Viera Wetlands calling and singing almost continuously.

What’s a trip to Florida without a Loggerhead Shrike? I observed this bird at Viera Wetlands calling and singing almost continuously.

My friend Kerry was in Florida for the winter and we had made arrangements to go birding after the festival.  I had asked Kerry for her target list of birds that she wanted to see and she listed just one – Snail Kite.  I suggested that we go to Three Lakes WMA and then Joe Overstreet Road and the little marina on Lake Kissimmee.  The night before we would meet, I was getting tired and I began to worry.  What if we didn’t see anything at Three Lakes?  What if we missed the Snail Kite?  I thought about changing our plan to include more opportunities to find Snail Kite and I fell asleep worrying.

Perhaps I dreamed of eagles. Kerry and I would see five Bald Eagles the next day.

Perhaps I dreamed of eagles. Kerry and I would see five Bald Eagles the next day.

A night’s sleep must have refreshed me.  I awoke feeling much more optimistic and decided to stick with our plan.  It wasn’t long after our arrival at Three Lakes that we started seeing birds.  Shortly after we started down the main road, we both caught a glimpse of something light in a distant clump of trees.  I thought caracara and Kerry thought eagle.  A moment later we saw an eagle fly out.  And, then we saw something in the trees again – there WAS a caracara!  But, Kerry saw another bird, too.  We got out the scope and discovered an eagle perched about 10 feet from the caracara.  What was a young Crested Caracara doing with two adult Bald Eagles?  It was too far for a photo, but I’m sure we will both remember our fascinating raptor sighting.

We kept seeing more birds – Eastern Towhees so close that we could see their white eyes (our North Carolina towhees have dark eyes), oodles of beautiful Pine Warblers, an Orange-crowned Warbler, Purple Gallinules, and many more species.

My photo is poor, but our looks at the Snail Kite were great.

My photo is poor, but our looks at the Snail Kite were great.

We had such a great time birding at Three Lakes that it was after noon when we got to Joe Overstreet Road.  We slowly drove the five miles to the marina, parked the car, and walked to the little pier.  Kerry was ahead of me and before I caught up with her, I heard something like, “There’s the Snail Kite.  Oh, there are two of them.”  We enjoyed the show for about an hour, with great looks at the kites as they hunted for snails, occasionally flying just 20 feet in front of us.

I had not needed to worry.  We ended the day with 60 species, a life bird for Kerry, and memories of a beautiful day that neither of us will forget.

This gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sat on a fence post outside our car window on Joe Overstreet Road and sang almost non-stop. He was still singing as we finally pulled away and continued down the road.

This gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sat on a fence post outside our car window on Joe Overstreet Road and sang almost non-stop. He was still singing as we finally pulled away and continued down the road.

It was another great trip to Florida.  More photos will be posted to Flickr soon.  My photos of birds are also on eBird and can be seen here.

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Diane and I headed to Kenai after a couple of wonderful days in Homer.  This area is the heart of salmon fishing country.  At a couple of river crossings, the fishermen were standing shoulder to shoulder in the river in their hip waders.  We took a short detour through Anchor Point SRA on our way to Kenai and we found these gulls on the river beside Slidehole Campground.  In Alaska, Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull hybrids are common and I suspect that at least one of these birds is a hybrid.  Regardless of their identity, the birds were beautiful on their nest on the rock in the middle of the river.

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

We found this Northwestern Crow when we stopped for gas.  It looks just like an American Crow, but it’s a different species, so it adds to a birder’s life list.

Northwestern Crow

Northwestern Crow

We also had time that afternoon for a stop at Kenai NWR and a walk on the trail behind the headquarters in Soldotna.  This part of the state was quite different from Homer and we found the wooded trail just beautiful.  There was much lush mossy vegetation like that in the photo below.

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Early the next morning, July 1, we met our guide for the day, Ken Tarbox.  Ken and his wife Connie are largely responsible for the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide.  Ken is also one of the friendliest and most generous people we have met.  He told us that he likes to go out with visiting birders whenever his schedule allows.  Ken took us to all the birding hot spots around Kenai and Soldotna – the river flats, viewing platforms, the landfill, and even his yard and a friend’s yard.  We felt like we’d made a new friend and hope to go birding with Ken again.

Bonaparte’s Gulls were one of my favorites that day.  We watched this adult swimming and foraging by plunging into a little stream.  Here it is with the little fish that it caught.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

And, I saw my first juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull.

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull

One of our target birds for this part of the state was Spruce Grouse.  On our way to Seward the next morning, Diane and I drove Skilak Lake Road and enjoyed Pine Grosbeaks on the side of the road and Common Loons and Common Goldeneyes on the lakes, but we failed to find a grouse.  We decided that this was another good reason to go birding again in Alaska.

Ken had given us several tips on where to find American Dipper.  We did not find any at Tern Lake, but we found this cooperative bird at the next location we tried, Ptarmigan Creek Campground.

American Dipper

American Dipper

Diane had found the adorable and comfy Abode Well Cabins for our stay in Seward.  In addition to being clean and cute, birds were literally right outside our door.

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Just a couple of blocks away was a yard with juvenile Varied Thrushes.  They were fairly easy to see with our binoculars, but they hid in the grass just well enough to make getting a photo a challenge.

Juvenile Varied Thrush

Juvenile Varied Thrush

There were also beautiful butterflies and wildflowers near our cabin.  This is an Arctic White butterfly on fireweed.

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

On July 3, after a little birding near our cabin neighborhood, we ventured into town.  Seward’s population of 2,500 swells to about 30,000 for the Independence Day festivities.  Main Street is completely blocked off to traffic and the streets fill with people.  Most come to run in or watch the Mt. Marathon Race, which has quite an interesting history.  According to legend, it began with two old guys arguing about whether it was possible to run up and down the rather steep Mount Marathon in less than an hour.  The first official race was in 1915 and it has since become an important part of the July 4th celebration in Seward.

Seward Harbor

Seward Harbor

We drove Lowell Point Road, which runs along the edge of the harbor, where we enjoyed dozens of gulls, a couple of Harlequin Ducks, and Pigeon Guillemots.  We drove the road a couple of times, hoping to get close enough to the Marbled Murrelet to get a photo.  We had stopped at the end of the road closest to town and were watching the gulls.  And, then things started happening so fast that I’m not entirely certain exactly what happened, but here’s how I think it went.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

A group of about eight young people were standing about 20 feet from where we were, also watching the birds.  Suddenly there were two Bald Eagles right in front of us.  One of the eagles caught a fish, the other tried to steal it, and the fish was dropped.  One eagle flew away.  One of the young men picked up the fish and threw it for the eagle.  The eagle swooped in to within 10-20 feet from all of us, but missed the fish.  This happened several times, the young man throwing the fish and the eagle attempting to catch it.  Excitement and enthusiastic shouts filled the air.  With one throw, the eagle came in especially close and the young man shouted “Hello America!”  And, we couldn’t imagine a more American place in the country than Seward, Alaska, on that gorgeous sunny Independence Day eve.

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

After a delicious dinner with a view of Seward Harbor at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant, we ended the day with a drive on Nash Road to see the family of Trumpeter Swans that are regulars there.

Trumpter Swan family

Trumpter Swan family

The next morning it was time to head to the Anchorage Airport again, this time to fly home.  I will forever be grateful for 28 summer days in Alaska, truly the “trip of a lifetime.”  And, I’m especially grateful for the last week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.

Bald Eagle in tree

Bald Eagle

This is the sixth and last post about my trip to Alaska.  The other posts are:

Alaska 2015: There’s no place like Nome
Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled
Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park
Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World
Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

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January 2012

Tricolored Heron at Merritt Island NWR

The moon has completed a full revolution around Earth since my last day of work and I haven’t even begun cleaning up my house.  But I have seen 149 species of birds, including 5 life birds.

January 3, the first workday of the year, was bitterly cold, but I felt an irresistible urge to get out of the house.  I drove around a bit and as I returned home, I saw dozens of both Black and Turkey Vultures patrolling my neighborhood and roosting in a backyard pine tree three houses down the street from my house.  I stopped my car in front of a neighbor’s house and stood in the street staring in amazement as the vultures flew low over the street.  My neighbor came out to ask what I was watching.  We talked a bit about the birds as we enjoyed the unusual sight.  Just as she walked back to her door, I screamed “Bald Eagle, Bald Eagle!” and she came running back.  I shared my binoculars and we watched an adult eagle fly over our heads.  This was the first time that I had met this neighbor, yet we jumped up and down and hugged like excited children.  She told me that she had seen the eagle perched in a tree in her backyard earlier that day, but did not know what it was.

My planned Florida trip was postponed at the last minute due to unexpected events, but my birthday was January 12 and I wanted to celebrate with birds.  On an impulse, I signed up for the Georgia Ornithological Society meeting in Tybee Beach, Georgia.  The trip got off to a wonderful start with a stop at Savannah NWR on the way to the meeting.  Three other birders were in the parking area when I arrived and we all birded the wildlife drive together.  Our sightings included a King Rail, who amazed us by walking around right out in the open.  We saw it from as close as 10-15 feet and heard it vocalize.  Life bird #1 for 2012!  The GOS meeting was great.  I continue to be impressed with both the skill and friendliness of Georgia birders.  I think that I enjoyed meeting new people as much as I enjoyed the birds.  And the meeting delivered life bird #2, a lovely, cooperative Snow Bunting on the beach with the Tybee Island shorebirds.

A few days at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival completed my birding for the month.  I met more friendly birders and got 3 more life birds, Black Rail, Glaucous Gull, and Pomarine Jaeger.  The rail was heard only, but that’s all I expected.  I had great views of the Glaucous Gull as well as the jaeger as it harassed gulls just off shore.  In my spare time, I birded Merritt Island NWR, which has now become one of my favorite “hot spots.”

So, what did I learn with all this birding?

Female ducks CAN be identified.  Except for easy ones like Bufflehead and Ruddy Duck, I previously used the “look for the closest male” method of identifying female ducks.  Now I’m motivated to at least try to identify the females.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Gulls can be identified, too, even the sub-adults.  Now I’m also motivated to work on this group of birds.

Pay attention to Willets.  This is a beautiful underappreciated bird.  And, Eastern and Western Willet will be split, according to shorebird expert Kevin Karlson and other top birders.  Western Willets breed in the Great Plains and winter along all US coastlines and down into Mexico.  Eastern Willets breed all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and winter in South America.  They can be distinguished by physical characteristics and voice.

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