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Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

Most birders don’t head to Florida in the summer.  And, I wouldn’t either if my step-daughters and my best friend didn’t live there.  I lived in Florida, too, for over 30 years, so it still feels like home and I visit every chance I get, even in summer.  Mid-day can be brutally hot and muggy, but nights are usually balmy and lovely.  The fresh gulf air brings memories of childhood summer days spent at St. Pete and Clearwater beaches.  How I wish my mother were here to see how much like her I’ve become.  As a teenager, I wanted to go to the beaches with nothing but pure white sand.  My parents preferred beaches with signs of life – sandpipers, pelicans, fiddler crabs, shells (some still alive).

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

I’ve had many rewards for summer birding in Florida.  The first was seeing brand-new just-fledged Snowy Plovers on July 7, 2008, on Caladesi Island.  David and I devoted an entire day to searching for these birds which had risen to the top of my most wanted list.  Their light colors blend into the sand in the hot summer sun, but David quickly found a group of five.

Loggerhead Shrikes are also memorable summer birds.  On June 27, 2009, I was thrilled to watch a Loggerhead Shrike family at St. Pete’s North Shore Park.

A juvenile Loggerhead Shrike enjoys lunch provided by a parent.

A juvenile Loggerhead Shrike enjoys lunch provided by a parent.

On June 22, 2013, we enjoyed a group of 14 Black-necked Stilts, including several juveniles, in a ditch between the road and the county landfill.

Juvenile Black-necked Stilt

Adult Black-necked Stilt

 

This year I headed south on June 20, the first day of summer and my step-daughter Debbie’s birthday.  My first stop was Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s birdier in winter, but I enjoyed watching mama Red-winged Blackbird feed two begging fledglings.  Common Gallinules were accompanied by little fuzz balls.   I tallied 20 species and drove to my motel.

Common Gallinule

Juvenile Common Gallinule. Note the feet on that baby!

I went back to Savannah NWR the next morning and then drove on to Harris Neck NWR, another of my favorite places to stop on the way to Florida.  Harris Neck’s Woody Pond is one of the south’s biggest rookeries and it overflows with Wood Storks, White Ibises, Great Egrets, and other wading birds in the spring and summer.  Harris Neck also hosts breeding Painted Buntings.  They are a little shy, but I was able to photograph this gorgeous male after he flew from the feeder to a close-by tree.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

Quinn and me

Quinn and me

I made it to Gainesville that evening in time for dinner with my step-daughter Liz and her family.  For the next three days I went to Sweetwater Wetlands Park for a couple hours in the morning and then spent the rest of the day with the girls.  It was fun to catch up with Debbie and her horse and spend time with Liz and her young daughters, Quinn and Casey.  We took Casey to see “Finding Dory,” the first movie that I’ve seen in years.  Quinn seemed immune to the heat and enjoyed our time at the “weekend park.”

Sweetwater Wetlands Park was created to improve water quality in Paynes Prairie.  It filters pollutants from urban runoff and wastewater which were harming the Alachua Sink with an excess of nitrogen.  The wetlands were also designed to also be an environmentally friendly park.  The result is outstandingly successful.  It is beautiful and functional and 217 species of birds have been reported there since work on the wetlands began in 2008.

 

One species that I especially appreciated was Least Bittern.  I had seen this secretive bird only a few times previously, but at Sweetwater there were lots of them and I even got a photo.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Birds at Sweetwater are accustomed to people; Limpkins and Purple Gallinules perch right on the boardwalk rail.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

On Friday I moved farther south to visit David and Val in Dunedin.  We had a rather quiet weekend, but I always enjoy spending time in the county where I grew up.  On my first evening there, Ruddy Turnstones entertained me on the Dunedin Causeway.  My appreciation for this common bird has increased since David and I found a banded one (with color flags) on August 11, 2012.  I reported that bird to Bandedbirds.org and learned that it had been banded along the Delaware Bayshore in the month of May, most likely in Delaware in 2009.  Ruddy Turnstones have a very wide range, but North American birds breed in the far north arctic and winter along the U.S. coast and southwards to the southern tip of South America.  The turnstone that David and I found had already flown thousands of miles in its young life.

Ruddy Turnstone, June 2016, on the Dunedin Causeway

Ruddy Turnstone, June 2016, on the Dunedin Causeway

On Saturday morning, David and I found another banded bird, a Least Tern, and this one had color bands enabling it to be traced to a specific bird.  It had a very interesting history related to us by Dr. Marianne Korosy.  “This bird was banded at the Ulmerton Warehouse complex, a rooftop nesting colony of least terns located just west of intersection of Starkey and Ulmerton Rd. in central Pinellas County in 2011.  It was banded as a chick when it fell off the roof there and survived unharmed. It was banded and then returned to the roof.  The last time this bird was seen was July 20, 2011 on the south end of Clearwater Beach.”  Our report was the first in five years!

Banded Least Tern

Banded Least Tern

Least Terns are also migration champions.  They leave North America entirely in winter, moving to tropical waters as far south as Brazil.

One of the young Least Terns in the flock at Courtney Campbell Beach.

One of the young Least Terns in the flock at Courtney Campbell Beach.

I left for home on Monday morning and decided to try some different birding stops on this trip.  First was Okefenokee NWR in Georgia.  I enjoyed getting to know the place a little.  Several Bobwhites called during my few hours there.  Bachman’s Sparrows were singing all along the wildlife drive.  I made a mental note to go back some time in spring.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Next was a detour to Tybee Island.  A Lesser Black-backed Gull and Common Terns had been reported recently and I thought it would be fun to see them.  After I finally found the north beach and a parking spot, I walked to the water.  I had no idea which way to walk, so I turned right.  No birds were in sight except for a cormorant and a couple of Brown Pelicans that few over the water.  I resigned myself to having wasted several hours for nothing.  And, then I saw the flock!  Literally hundreds of birds were at the water’s edge where the shoreline curved.  I love this kind of birding; the birds calmly stayed put or flew just a short distance before settling down.  There were no trees for them to hide in.  Yes, beach birding is definitely the way to go for those with poor vision.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

I had no trouble finding the Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst the Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns which made up 98% of the flock.  I also found two Common Terns, a few Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, and two Black Skimmers in the flock.  I love gulls and terns, so this turned out to be a good stop after all.  After taking photos, I hurried back to my car and set the GPS to “go home.”

More photos from this trip are on Flickr in my NC to FL – June 2016 album.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

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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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The birding trip with Bill Drummond and Dave Hursh was great, but it was rigorous with early starts and no down time.  I found myself looking forward more and more to the relaxing week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.  I didn’t expect to get any additional life birds, but it would be wonderful to spend time with a friend and we wouldn’t have to get up at 5:00 AM every morning.  After Diane and I both arrived at the Anchorage airport on June 27, she from Minneapolis and me from Barrow, we spent the afternoon birding close to the hotel.

To Homer and Seward

The next morning we set out for Homer.  It was only a little over four hours, but we had all day.  Our first stop was at Potter’s Marsh just outside of Anchorage, where the highlight was a Greater White-fronted Goose, a life bird for Diane.

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose

We could have stayed there all day, but after a few hours, we got back on the road and continued on to the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Peninsula

The drive to Homer was breathtaking and ended with a warm welcome at Paula’s Place, our bed-and-breakfast home for the next two days.  We had the entire beautiful and comfortable lower floor to ourselves.  Paula’s warmth and hospitality made us want to stay forever.

Paula's Place, Homer, Alaska

Paula’s Place, Homer, Alaska

The following morning, June 29, was one of the best of the entire trip.  We spent the morning at Mossy Kilcher’s Seaside Farm.  It’s a real working farm with a hostel and guest cabins.  The place had a hippie atmosphere which made it feel a little like magically stepping back into the 1960’s.  Underlying it all was an incredible respect and love for all the animals who call the farm home.  We were especially touched by a very old horse who was given a large enclosure, food, and loving care even though he was too old to ride.

Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

Mossy spent some time with us and we enjoyed meeting her as much as seeing her farm and birds.

Mossy and Shelley

Mossy Kilcher and me

She amazed us by knowing every bird and it’s history.  She pointed out one singing Fox Sparrow and told us where his nest was last year as well as this year.  She recognizes each individual bird by subtle differences in his song.  Mossy protects these birds by not allowing free-roaming cats or dogs on her property.

Bird Nest Habitat at Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

We were delighted by baby birds everywhere.  Mossy told us that many Alaskans think of wild celery as a weed and cut it down, but she lets it grow because it’s good bird habitat.  We caught this pretty fledgling Hermit Thrush flitting around under wild celery.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We were also treated to our best looks ever at Golden-crowned Sparrows.  Below is a cute baby followed by a photo of it with a parent.

Golden-crowned juvie

Juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrows

After spending the entire morning at Mossy’s Seaside Farm, we tore ourselves away to check out some other birding spots near Homer.  After lunch, we went to Beluga Slough where we enjoyed a pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young colt.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Song Sparrows are common across North America, but the sub-species in Alaska is much darker than those in other parts of the county.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

We finished the day with dinner and a drive down the 4-mile Homer Spit, a world-famous birding hot spot.  The shorebirds for which it’s best known had passed through in May, but in June there were still many birds including thousands of gulls.  The photo below shows a flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a species we saw all over Alaska.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Black-legged Kittiwakes

The Glaucous-winged Gulls in Homer were very accommodating photographic subjects.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Diane and I fell into bed that night tired and happy after an amazing first day in Homer.  We were up early the next morning for our boat trip with Karl Stoltzfus, owner and operator of Bay Excursions.  Karl is a serious birder and the local expert on Kachemak Bay wildlife. His small yellow boat was perfect for getting close to the birds. 

The Surfbird’s golden highlights glowed in the sun.

Surfbird

Surfbird

Sea otters were so cute floating on their backs.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

It was great to get an up-close look at a pretty Black Guillemot.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

And, while I’d seen many Common Murres in Alaska, we got closest to them on Karl’s boat trip.

Common Murres

Common Murres

The three-hour Kachemak Bay trip was perfect.  Karl stayed close enough to land that the seas were smooth, a blessing for those of us who get seasick.  And, it was long enough to visit Gull Island and other highlights of the bay.  Most exciting for me was getting a good look at Kittlitz’s Murrelet, my last life bird in Alaska.  I had missed this bird on the Northwestern Fjord trip out of Seward, but with his small boat and excellent skills Karl got much closer to the birds.  Karl is very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and he shows respect for them by stopping his engine at a good distance and letting the boat drift towards the birds, and sea otters, so as not to endanger or alarm them.

Diane and Karl

Diane and Karl aboard the Torega.

Our time in Homer had been wonderful, but we had more places on the Kenai Peninsula to visit, so we packed up and headed on towards our next destination after lunch.  On the drive to Kenai, Diane and I both talked about our dreams of visiting Homer again.

Next story about my trip – Alaska 2015: Hello America!

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Our days in Alaska were going quickly and it was soon time for the last segment of the trip – Barrow, the northernmost city in the US.  Barrow is about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and roughly 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.  As you might expect, it was cold, and windy too, so we were often chilly even in our warmest winter wear.  Barrow is small with a population of about 4,400; approximately 61 percent are Iñupiat Eskimo.  Like Nome, no roads connect it to any other city in Alaska.

Anchorage to Barrow

Anchorage to Barrow

Our flight from Anchorage on June 25 arrived in the early afternoon and we checked into the Airport Inn hotel.  We started seeing birds before we even got on the bus to go birding.  A Snowy Owl was perched on a tall pole just down the street from the hotel.  Snow Buntings were nesting in a box attached to the side of the house across the street.  We learned that these nest boxes are common because Snow Buntings are thought to bring good luck.

To the Top of the World

Our main targets in Barrow were eiders (sea ducks) with all four of the world’s eider species breeding there.  For many birders, Spectacled Eider is the holy grail of waterfowl.  And, we did see them, although we had only distant scope views.  I did not get a photo, but here is Cindy Shults’ postcard.  More about Cindy later in this story.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders

The most beautiful duck turned out to be Steller’s Eider and we did get good looks at several pair of this species.

Steller's Eiders

Steller’s Eiders

On all of Bill Drummond’s trips, he has everyone vote for their top five birds using whatever criteria they choose.  Steller’s Eider was voted the top bird for our Alaska trip with Spectacled Eider coming in second.

We also saw our first Red Phalaropes of the trip, life birds for me.  Just like the Red-necked Phalaropes that we saw earlier in the trip, the females are more brightly colored than the males.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope

After seeing our target birds on the first day, we were free to just enjoy Barrow and more birds for the next day and a half.  During the days leading up to Barrow, trip co-leader Dave Hursh had enthusiastically talked about the booming of Pectoral Sandpipers and how special it would be to hear it.  I didn’t anticipate that it would be all that special.  But I loved the call when I heard it.  I failed to get a recording, but I found a good description of the call in the September 1898 issue of the periodical “Birds and All Nature.”

“The note is deep, hollow, and resonant, but at the same time liquid and musical, and may be represented by a repetition of the syllables too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u.”  The full text of this short article can be found here Pectoral Sandpiper.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Another bird that I really enjoyed seeing in Barrow was Long-billed Dowitcher.  While most of the others were scoping distant birds on the water, I enjoyed some quality time with the phalaropes and this bird.  I had never seen a Long-billed Dowitcher at such close range and I usually see dowitchers in winter plumage rather than breeding plumage.  Additionally, there was no chance of mistaken identification because the very similar Short-billed Dowitcher does not range as far north as Barrow.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

The Barrow community is traditionally known as Ukpeagvik, “place where snowy owls are hunted.”  This words on this sign surprised me a little, but it was a stark reminder of the challenges of life in the far north.  Everyone is just trying to find enough food to survive.

Where we hunt Snowy Owls

I enjoyed more quality time with a few special birds again on our second day.  In Barrow, these birds were as common as robins and chickadees are at home, but I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again.  The two birds below were seen from a long boardwalk out over the tundra along with a Semipalmated Sandpiper on her nest and a female Pectoral Sandpiper.

Lapland Longspur (female)

Lapland Longspur (female)

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A sea watch was the plan for our last morning and I almost didn’t go thinking that all the birds would be out so far that I couldn’t see them.  But, this morning turned out to be a wonderful end to our stay in Barrow.  On our way to the ocean we stumbled into Cindy Shults’ yard, the only one that we saw in Barrow with bird feeders.  The yard itself was interesting and we enjoyed the birds including several Hoary Redpolls, a just fledged Snow Bunting, and an unexpected Pine Siskin, which is rare that far north.

Hoary Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

Cindy came out to talk with us and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and talking about life in Barrow.  Cindy is a freelance photographer who owns Windows to the World Photography.  She was also the manager of the Barrow Job Center until recently when the job center was closed.

Cindy Shults

Cindy Shults in her yard

After visiting with Cindy and her birds, we tore ourselves away and went to watch for sea birds.  That turned out to be more fun than I’d expected.  I did see birds and I learned how to identify White-winged Scoter and Black Guillemot at a great distance.  We also had fun talking with a young man who had recently graduated from high school.  We think that his friends dared him to come talk to us, but he seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing.  He was very personable and smart and he shared his dreams of going to college elsewhere and then returning to Barrow.

Soon, it was time to catch our plane back to Anchorage. We packed up and said goodbye to our new friends, Andrew and Nancy, managers of the Airport Inn.  They hope to buy the hotel and we joked about how it would help business if we returned in February and brought friends with us.

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Dave Hursh had left the night before with a few members of our group for Dutch Harbor.  Once the rest of us arrived back in Anchorage, everyone would go different directions, most heading home.  But, my adventure in Alaska was not yet over.  My friend, Diane, would fly from Minneapolis to meet me at the Anchorage airport and we would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula.  That story is next – Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

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After returning from St. Paul Island, we stayed within driving distance of Anchorage for the next week.  On June 18, most of our group drove 175 miles up Glenn Highway to the Tolsona Wilderness Campground where a family of Great Gray Owls had been observed for several weeks.  I would have liked to see the owls, but I opted to go with my roommate, Ellen, to retrieve her car from a friend’s house in Wasilla.  Ellen’s car would be part of the caravan transporting our 22 birders for this part of the trip.

Seward to Denali 2

We got the car and then headed on up the highway to meet the others.  Ellen and I found the only Northern Flickers of the trip while searching for a Northern Hawk Owl.  The flickers were the yellow-shafted sub-species rather than the red-shafted form of Northern Flicker found in the west.  The photo below was shot by wildlife photographer Michael Quinton in Alaska.  For more of Michael’s beautiful work, see his blog, Journal of a Wildlife Photographer.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

I was surprised to see the yellow-shafted form of the Flicker, but trip co-leader, Dave Hursh, explained that many birds in Alaska are the eastern sub-species. The eBird map below for Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker shows how the range sweeps west and north.  The red-shafted form occurs in the west and does not go as far north as Alaska.  Yellow-rumped Warblers show similar range patterns with our eastern “Myrtle” warblers common in Alaska and their western “Audubon’s” counterparts staying farther south.

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) eBird range map

We met the rest of our group a little later just after they had found the Northern Hawk Owl sitting on a telephone wire and everyone got great looks.  The day ended with a delicious dinner at Sheep Mountain Lodge and the drive back to Anchorage.

The next day we drove to Seward, birding along the way.  One of my favorite stops was just outside of Seward at Ava’s Place, a yard with numerous feeders and an owner who welcomes birders.  There was constant activity in the yard with an estimated 30 Pine Siskins and about a dozen other species.  I especially enjoyed the Pine Grosbeaks – males, females, and juveniles.

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (male)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

Pine Grosbeak (female)

The reason for our visit to Seward was to take the 9-hour Northwestern Fjord tour.  It was a wonderful cruise, 150 miles round trip that went deep into Kenai Fjords National Park.  I have to confess, though, that the Northwestern Glacier itself was underwhelming, even downright disappointing.  I think that I had expected it to look like it did 100 years ago, but the glacier has retreated over 6 miles in the last century.  The photos below show the view in 1909 and again in 2005.  Most other glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere are also rapidly melting, evidence of global warming accelerated by human activities.

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

Northwestern Glacier in 1909 and 2005

The day was very overcast and I had visual difficulty with my transitions lenses that darkened too much.  But, I couldn’t see well without them either because they had the prisms that corrected my double vision.  Even so, I enjoyed the wildlife and beautiful landscape.

The highlight for me was a Humpback Whale that we observed “pec slapping.”  We speculated about the behavior, but back home a little research suggests that it’s a form of communication.  The whale swam on the surface of the water slowly and repeatedly lifting and slapping it’s massive 15-foot pectoral fin on the surface of the water.  It was quite impressive!  We also observed the whale breech, almost completely clearing the water, for a thrilling finale.

Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of the whale, but I did get a photo of the Steller’s Sea Lions below.

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions

After Seward we made the long drive to Healy, our base for exploring Denali National Park for two full days.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

Wolves in Denali National Park

We saw birds in Denali, but the highlights there were mammals.  We saw all of the “Big 5” – grizzly bear, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolf.  Four of the five are pretty reliable, but we were very lucky that most of us saw two wolves right on the road.  The wolf population has declined in Denali in recent years.  Numbers reached a record low this spring with an estimated population of just 48 in the park’s 18,820 square kilometers of wolf population area.

We saw several caribou, most scruffy like the one in the photo below.

Caribou

Caribou

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

I also enjoyed seeing smaller mammals like the Arctic Ground Squirrel.  I asked the bus driver to stop so that I could get this photo.  He seemed to think that I was the only one who was interested, but I saw several other cameras come out for this cute little rodent.

Wildflowers in Nome and the Pribolof Islands had been mostly small tundra species except for the lupine and wild celery.  Larger showier flowers were common around Denali and on the Kenai Peninsula.  I loved the beautiful Fireweed.

Flower Fly on Fireweed

Flower Fly on Fireweed

I never got tired of Ptarmigans.  We watched this female Willow Ptarmigan scramble up a hill followed by several small chicks.

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Willow Ptarmigan (female)

Mew Gulls were very cooperative photographic subjects.  This one perched atop a car in a parking lot and I was able to walk right up to it.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

And, here is a female Mew Gull on her nest by the side of a river.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

Black-billed Magpies were big bold subjects for the camera.  This one was in a parking lot.  They were rather common, but they were always fun to see.

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Gray Jays were bold, too, and we enjoyed several near a picnic area at one of the stops on our all-day bus ride in Denali National Park.  It is illegal to feed the birds, but based upon the way they were looking for handouts, I’m sure that they had previous experience with snack-sharing law-breaking visitors.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

As in every part of the trip, it was over all too soon and we drove back to Anchorage.  In the photo below, taken on that drive, you can see the ubiquitous wild celery in the foreground.

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This is the third of six posts about my month in Alaska.  Next – Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World

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News flash – I just saw my 600th ABA bird! Please pardon this interruption to my series of Alaska posts, but this is just too exciting to not share now. Birders, feel free to skip ahead while I attempt to explain to my non-birding friends just what an “ABA bird” is. ABA is the American Birding Association, a wonderful organization that serves birders with publications aimed at improving birding skills, promotion of conservation, summer camps for teens, and lots of other fun and important birding stuff. It is also the official keeper of LISTS. Avid birders love lists and ABA members can report theirs for comparison to other birders. The “ABA area” is basically all of North America north of Mexico. So, a birder’s ABA list is the list of all the birds that he or she has observed in the ABA area.

Green Heron - The ABA

Green Heron – The ABA “Bird of the Year” for 2015

Back in the 1960s, it was quite an accomplishment to join the “600 Club.” But, the Internet, email, listservs, eBird, Facebook, and cell phones have totally changed birding from a few decades ago. Now, news of a rare bird travels fast and within hours dozens of birders may see a rarity. This rapid communication has enabled many to see 700 species in the ABA area and some have even observed over 800 ABA birds, but that achievement requires a lot of time, money, energy, and ambition. To put these numbers in perspective, there are only 671 regularly occurring birds in North America and many of those are found only in small numbers in particular locations. Another 308 species are rare and many of those have been observed in North America only a few times.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

I was getting close to 600 ABA birds when I left for Alaska in June. I needed 42 more and there were 42 birds on last year’s trip list that I had not seen. I had a chance! But, birds change from year to year and I got only 40 ABA birds in Alaska. I needed two more birds. And, then I learned that the non-migratory Whooping Cranes that I had seen in Florida last year were now countable. I needed only one more bird! Of course, I was excited about the possibilities, but this wasn’t going to be easy. I would figure out a plan for #600 later.

On August 11, I left for Gainesville, Florida, for a family visit. I planned to just drive down, visit family, and drive back home. I didn’t even take my scope or hiking shoes. Since I got back from Alaska a few weeks earlier, I had not paid much attention to what was happening outside my home county. But, after I got to Florida, I discovered that Smooth-billed Anis were being reported at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge every day. There was mention of a nest, so I expected the birds to continue to be there for a while. I had seen Anis in Ecuador, but not in the ABA area. This could be my #600! I altered my plans so that I could drive to South Florida and see the Anis after visiting with my family.

Smooth-billed Ani

Smooth-billed Ani

I didn’t know if a scope was required or not, but I wanted to be sure that I’d have the best views possible. Fortunately, Angel & Mariel Abreu of Nature Is Awesome Birding & Wildlife Tours were available for the day. They would also try to help me get Black-whiskered Vireo for #601 and we could spend the remainder of the day looking for South Florida specialty butterflies.

On August 16, we arrived at Loxahatchee at 9:00 AM and found two Smooth-billed Anis right away. They could not have been more cooperative and we had fun watching the birds preen and fly around a little, but never out of sight. We could see detail in every feather with the scope and we got good photos.

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

We also saw the first two of six new butterflies for me that day, Phaon Crescent and Ruddy Daggerwing.

Ruddy Daggerwing

Ruddy Daggerwing

Phaon Crescent

Phaon Crescent

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the Anis and drove down to Key Largo to look for the Black-whiskered Vireos that Angel and Mariel had scouted the previous day. They both saw three birds after just a few minutes, but it took over two hours for me to get a satisfying look. Angel and Mariel never once complained while we stood there in the August heat. Finally, I got a good enough look at one of the birds and we moved on to look for more butterflies.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

We went to an area of the Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site that requires a backcountry pass, which the Abreus had obtained the previous day when scouting for the vireo. We saw a few birds and a Florida Purplewing, a rare butterfly that is officially listed as a “Species of Special Concern” due to its declining population and disappearance from most of its historic range. I’m sure that the beautiful Purplewing was the highlight of the day for Angel and Mariel.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

Our last stop was at a pine rockland preservation in Homestead. At first glance, it looked like any other Florida pine forest with saw palmetto understory. But, as soon as we stepped off the path and carefully walked through the rocks, I could see how different this was. Pine rockland exists only in southern Florida and parts of the Bahamas. It is typically a savanna-like forest on limestone outcroppings with a canopy of Florida Slash Pine and a diverse understory of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Pine rocklands are home to a significant number of rare plants and animals found in no other habitat, including several Federally Endangered plants. Its delicate beauty becomes apparent once you really look at the life it hosts. Sadly, pine rockland is an endangered ecosystem with only a few fragments remaining in South Florida and some of those are slated for development.

Baracoa Skipper

Baracoa Skipper

Ceranus Blue

Ceranus Blue

Butterflies we found there were Baracoa Skipper and Ceranus Blue.

Curve-lined Cydosia Moth

Our last sighting of the day, just before dark at that same location, was the Curve-lined Cydosia Moth in the photo to the left, which is found from southern Florida south to Argentina. This beautiful moth is not very common and it was new to all of us.

I could not have asked for a more cooperative or interesting bird for ABA #600.  Thanks to Angel and Mariel for another fun day. As always, I left South Florida looking forward to returning again soon.

My next post will be another on Alaska.  Follow along with me on more birding adventures.

Angel Mariel and me

Angel, Mariel, and me

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The Pribilof Islands host more than 2.5 million nesting seabirds each year, mostly on St. George, which has the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. But fog makes travel to St. George unpredictable with frequent delays and cancelled flights. So, after our return from Nome, we flew to St. Paul Island on June 14th.  The island has a human population of about 500 and an avian population of nearly 200,000 in late spring. The regular breeding seabirds of St. Paul include about a dozen species of murres, auklets, kittiwakes, puffins, Red-faced Cormorant, and Northern Fulmar. Close-up views of these birds are enough to delight any birder. In addition, Siberian vagrants predictably show up on St. Paul. Predictable does not mean that you have any idea which rare birds will show up; just that it is very likely that something unusual will appear on the island during any week in spring.

Anchorage to St Paul

The birding routine on St. Paul is the same for everyone. You fly from Anchorage on Pen Air, the only airline that serves St. Paul and St. George Islands. You stay at the King Eider Hotel, the only hotel on the island, and eat at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria, where the folks from The Deadliest Catch also eat. The hotel is basic, but comfortable. Each room has a double bed or two twin beds and the bathrooms are down the hall. The food at the cafeteria is very good. The Alaska Native corporation, TDX, owns over 95% of St. Paul Island, including St. Paul Island Tours, which employs the birding guides. The three birding guides rotate the job of shuttling birders around the island in a bus to the cliffs, lakes, and various birding areas.  In the photo below is Ridge Wall – one of the best places to view nesting seabirds.

Come in a little closer and you can see that all those white dots on the edges of the cliff are birds.  Those below are mostly Thick-billed Murres.

On our second full day, Scott Schuette had taken us to several birding spots around the island. Mid-afternoon, we were on our way back to the hotel for a bathroom break when Scott announced “The pit stop is cancelled. Alison just found a Hawfinch.” Hawfinch is a rare Asian visitor to the Pribilofs and it would be a life bird for most of us including Bill. We drove as fast as the dirt roads would allow to the Tim’s Pond area in hopes of seeing this rarity. Scott stopped on the road closest to the area where Alison had seen the bird and we starting trekking over the tundra. Most of the birders in our group saw the Hawfinch as it flew overhead several times. I did not; I just couldn’t get on it in flight. But, we were lucky and finally got it in the scope when it landed on the ground. It wasn’t a great look, but one that I could count. Alison tells a very interesting story about this day in her blog post, A Lifer for Bill.

I was not able to get a photo of the Hawfinch, but I did get photos of some nesting seabirds.  What could be cuter than this pair of Tufted Puffins?

Tufted Puffins

Tufted Puffins

Least Auklets are pretty cute, too.

Least Auklets

Two other species of auklets nest on the island, the Parakeet Auklets shown in the photo below and Crested Auklets.  We saw all three species.

Parakeet Auklets

Parakeet Auklets

And, here are those Thick-billed Murres again, really close-up.  This is the most common nesting seabird on St. Paul Island.

Thick-billed Murres

Thick-billed Murres

St. Paul is the largest of the Pribilof Islands with a total area of 43 square miles. The typical temperature in June is in the low 40s and the high wind and humidity give the summer air a raw chilliness.

Arctic LupineAmazingly, three small songbirds are year-round residents in this harsh climate of St. Paul Island – Winter Wren, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Snow Bunting. One additional songbird joins them for the breeding season – Lapland Longspur. The other avian life on the island consists of mostly seabirds, ducks, and shorebirds.

The landscape is marine tundra; there are no trees. Arctic Lupine and Wild Celery grow all over the island. Despite its name, the Wild Celery in Alaska bears no resemblance to the edible vegetable celery, although it is a valuable food for wildlife. The image to the left is a postcard that depicts the lupine exactly like it looked most mornings on St. Paul.

The Rosy-Finches were one of my favorite species of the entire trip.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

And, how their looks change with just a little puffing up and a different perspectve!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

The Rock Sandpipers were another of my favorite St. Paul Island breeding birds.

Rock Sandpiper

Rock Sandpiper

One afternoon, I enjoyed some time with Red-necked Phalaropes at a little pond while the others trekked further out over the tundra.  Phalaropes are fascinating birds.  They are known for spinning in circles to flush small aquatic prey to the water’s surface where they can easily pluck it with their bills.  Also, phalaropes exhibit what scientists call “reverse sexual dimorphism” which simply means that the girls are prettier than the boys.  The typical courtship and parental roles are also reversed in phalaropes.  Females fight ferociously over males.  After they are paired up, the male builds a simple nest in which the female lays four eggs.  And, then she flies away leaving the male to incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks after they hatch.

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Several other birds bounced around the edges of the little pond with the phalaropes, including Semipalmated Plovers.  This species is familiar to most birders due to its wide wintering range, including the southern part the U.S. mainland coasts, but it breeds in Alaska and northern Canada.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Our four day/three night stay on St. Paul Island was over all too quickly.  All three of our birding guides, Scott Schuette, Cory Gregory, and Alison Vilag, were excellent birders and took great efforts to ensure that we saw all the birds on the island and had good looks at everything.  We couldn’t have asked for more, except maybe to go back again!

Heading to lunch at the Trident cafeteria

Heading to lunch at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria

Next in my adventure – Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park

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I don’t remember a time that I didn’t want to visit Alaska. It’s a big expensive trip, though, so it had not risen to top of my travel plans until Bill Drummond wrote last year inviting me to go on his 23rd and last trip to Alaska. I wanted to go with Bill because of his extensive experience in Alaska, so I signed up for the 3-week birding trip. And, I would have a bonus. My friend, Diane, wanted to go on the trip, but could not get the time off from work, so we decided that I would stay another week after Bill’s trip and she would fly out to meet me. The two of us would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula. Nearly a year after committing to the trip, I flew to Anchorage on June 7. The next morning I flew to Nome to meet Bill, co-leader Dave Hursh, and the rest of our group. Nome was much smaller than I’d expected with a population under 4,000. It seemed that all the visitors to the town were birders, some with organized groups and some on their own. There are three main roads leading out from Nome, each about 75 miles long, but no roads or railways connect Nome to other major Alaskan cities. Birding in Nome consists of driving these three roads. Birds are spread out in breeding season, with large groups only along the coast of the Bering Sea. The appeal to birders isn’t numbers, though, but birds that are found nowhere else.

Male Willow Ptarmigan on the Kougarok Road

Male Willow Ptarmigan on the Kougarok Road

The avian star of Nome is the Bristle-thighed Curlew (click link for fantastic photo and info), a shorebird that looks a lot like a Whimbrel.  This rare bird with a population well under 10,000 is known to breed only on inland tundra in the steep hills of western Alaska.  Nests are frequently placed directly beneath dwarf willow shrubs. Two sites near Nome are the only places where birders can see the curlew on its breeding grounds. On our first full day in Nome, June 9, our goal was to see this bird, Bill’s favorite. We choose the easier site, at mile 72 on Kougarok Road, as most birders do, but it still took several hours to climb the hill on the spongy and uneven tundra. There were interesting sights on our way up the hill, though – tiny tundra flowers, nesting Long-tailed Jaegers, Willow Ptarmigan. I did not get the close look at the curlews that I’d hoped for, but just as exciting was a bird that flew directly overhead uttering its distinctive call.

A female Willow Ptarmigan, part way up the hill to the curlews.

A female Willow Ptarmigan, part way up the hill to the curlews.

On June 10, we spent the day closer to Nome where we found Musk Oxen not far from town. As rough looking as they are, underneath that tangled mess is an undercoat of fine wool that is eight times warmer than sheep wool and softer than cashmere. Musk Ox are not sheared; the fine wool is collected by hand combing or picking from bushes the animals rub against during molt. As you can guess, it is highly prized and very expensive.

Musk Oxen

Musk Oxen

Lapland Longspurs are common breeding birds in Alaska. We saw them everywhere except around Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula.

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur

We drove to Teller on June 11. One of our target birds was Arctic Warbler, a regular breeder near Nome. Our caravan of cars carrying our 22 birders stayed in close contact via 2-way radios. This day, I was riding in the same car with Bill.  When we reached an area with willows where we expected to find the warblers, the others started down a side road. Bill said, “We usually see them right here,” so our car stopped and we got out. Immediately, I heard Pete say “I’m on it” and my binoculars were soon on it, too.  Everyone else came to where we were and all had good views.

Arctic Warbler

Arctic Warbler

Another pleasant stop that day was at the bridge over the Sinuk River. It was a gorgeous day and some beautiful birds cooperated for photographs. I had seen Red-throated Loons before – in winter.  Seeing their glowing red throats in breeding plumage was almost like getting a life bird.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

The lovely and amazing Arctic Terns really were life birds. They have the longest annual migration of any animal on earth. Recent studies that placed geolocators on Arctic Terns discovered that their zigzag flights between their tundra breeding grounds and their wintering grounds off of Antarctica average 44,000 miles annually!

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

We spent most of June 12th birding the first 20 miles of the Council Road between Nome and Safety Sound. We were lucky to see another of our targets, Arctic Loon.  We found two birds close to shore and I was able to get a photo before we watched them swim farther out into the sea.

Arctic Loons

Arctic Loons

As expected, we saw lots of gulls along the coast. Glaucous Gulls were common in Nome.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull (first summer/2nd cycle?)

Another fun sighting was not a bird, but a female Moose who had just given birth on the opposite side of the river along the road. The first group to arrive saw the baby stand on wobbly legs and nurse. By the time that I got there, the baby had lain down close to mom. Moose with calf The next day we flew back to Anchorage, but not before a little more birding along the coast. We had good looks at a first summer Slaty-backed Gull feeding with other gulls on the washed-up carcass of a walrus.

Slaty-backed Gull

Slaty-backed Gull (2nd cycle)

Back in Anchorage that afternoon, we had time to check out Lake Hood right behind the Coast International Hotel where we were staying. Lake Hood is the busiest seaplane base in the world, so I was surprised to see birds there at all. But, apparently they love this lake, so much so that they have been a continuous problem there.  In an effort to reduce Lake Hood’s bird population in the early 1990s, officials released three female pigs named Larry, Curly, and Moe on the island that separates the takeoff and taxi lanes. The plan was for the pigs to rototill nest spots and eat eggs that the birds managed to lay. The pigs were effective for a while, but the effort ultimately failed. There are no longer pigs at Lake Hood, but birds remain, including beautiful Red-necked Grebes.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe on Lake Hood

This is just part one of my month-long Alaska adventure. Stay tuned for more!

Next story in this series of six – Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled

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After five days of birding in southeast Florida, it was time to pick up Kitty in Naples on Friday, April 17. Several weeks before the trip, I learned about the American Flamingos that had been discovered several years ago in Stormwater Treatment Area 2 (STA 2) in Palm Beach County. This year, for the first time, birders were being allowed access to the area through the Audubon Society of the Everglades. Wild flamingos are difficult birds to see. Even if one is willing to brave the heat and mosquitoes, Snake Bight in no longer a reliable option. When the birds sporadically show up in the Everglades, a boat is usually required to get to them. So, the STA 2 birds represented a unique opportunity. The only problem was that space on the scheduled trips was limited and many more people wanted to see the birds than there were spaces available. We were on the waiting list for Saturday, April 18. We had been told that if we made the cut, we would be notified two days prior to the trip, but in my mind I had set the cut-off time as noon on Friday. Everything went smoothly on Friday morning. I picked Kitty up at noon and after a quick stop at Eagles Lakes Park, we headed north.

Eagles Lake Park, Naples, on my first visit in 2007.

Eagles Lake Park, Naples, on my first visit in 2007.

We planned to drive through central Florida and spend the night in Winter Haven. Kitty had a fabulous Everglades trip and I enjoyed hearing about it as we slowly made our way north. We stopped for a late lunch/early dinner at Beef O’Brady’s in Arcadia at about 4:00 PM. While waiting for our food to arrive, I checked my email and there it was – a message that we were in for the Flamingo trip! I was caught by surprise and disoriented about where we were and where the flamingos were. The exact location had been kept secret from us, but I knew that it was about 40 minutes from Clewiston. Kitty calmly looked as a map and simply said, “We can do it.” So, we quickly replied “Yes” we will be there, cancelled our motel reservations, made new reservations for the night, and headed east.

Our route on Friday

Our route on Friday

State Road 70 seemed familiar to me. I was pretty sure that this was where David and I had found our lifer Crested Caracaras back in 2008, so I suggested to Kitty that she look up Crested Caracara in the Peterson field guide. A short time later, Kitty found her own Caracara and then two more.

Crested Caracara from my January trip to Florida

Crested Caracara from my January trip to Florida

The next morning I went to breakfast at the Best Western in Clewiston and saw two people who looked like birders. So, I took a chance, walked over and said “Good morning. Are you birders?” Yes, they were. Bill and Lena from Corvallis, Oregon and I chatted a few minutes and then I hurried to get ready for the drive to STA 2. We arrived half an hour early, but were still car #7. Car-pooling is strictly enforced for these trips and we were happy to have two rather new birders ride with us. The leaders didn’t waste any time after approximately 60 people were checked in. We drove the 7 miles to the area where the flamingos were usually seen as fast at the dirt roads allowed. Before we even stopped, the leader announced on his walkie-talkie that he saw the birds. Next I heard “They’re flying.” But before my heart sank, “They are coming closer!” Five American Flamingos were then feeding so close that we could see them without binoculars. With a scope, the view was wonderful. Yet they were far enough that we didn’t disturb their feeding.  We enjoyed watching as they stood on one leg and stomped with the other foot to stir up food from the bottom of the shallow water. They completely submerged their heads under the water to feed. Fascinating details about Flamingo diet and feeding behavior can be found here, here, and here.  The group consisted of serious birders, casual nature lovers, and everyone in between. There was mutual acknowledgement that this was special and we all shared the joy of the experience.

American Flamingos at STA 2, Palm Beach County

American Flamingos at STA 2, Palm Beach County

The STA 2 trip lasted from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM. We drove 20 miles on the dirt berms and enjoyed many other birds in addition to the flamingos – Black Skimmers, White Pelicans, Black-necked Stilts, and more. Seeing the flamingos would have been a wonderful end to the trip, but we were not quite ready to head for home. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was our next destination and the Quality Inn in Titusville was the logical place to spend the night.  Early the next morning, I went to breakfast and who did I see? Yes, Bill and Lena from Oregon again! The four of us enjoyed breakfast together and then Kitty and I headed to Merritt Island. It was MUCH quieter than when I’d been there in January, but Kitty and I are both easily amused and never fail to find something interesting. That morning it was the Red-breasted Mergansers cruising with backs raised and heads under water so that they looked more like mammals than birds. Kitty speculated that the water was too shallow for diving and back home that theory was confirmed.

My life Red-breasted Merganser from Honeymoon Island in 2007.

My life Red-breasted Merganser from Honeymoon Island in 2007.

Our last stop of the trip was the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. It’s a very nice facility with all the native raptors of Florida. We especially enjoyed close-up looks at the Kestrel and Merlin. It was hot and our energy was running a little low on this day 11 of our travels. So, happy and tired, we headed for home.

Red-shouldered Hawk, a common Florida raptor observed earlier in the trip in Everglades National Park.

Red-shouldered Hawk, a common Florida raptor observed earlier in the trip in Everglades National Park.

While nothing was as exotic as Asia or South America, this was one of my favorite trips ever. Sharing much of it with friends made it even better. Part of me will always be a Florida girl and I am excited to think about the adventures that still await me there.

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On Tuesday morning, April 14, I headed off to Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park to look for a Mangrove Cuckoo. I dipped on the cuckoo, but found a gazillion White-eyed Vireos. Well, maybe that count is exaggerated a bit, but not much. The only other bird as numerous at Dagny is Northern Cardinal. After searching fruitlessly for a couple of hours, I decided to head to Long Key State Park. My late husband, Burt, and I frequently camped at Long Key in the early 1980’s, so it holds many fond memories. Plus, I could get lucky and find a Key West Quail-Dove. Could get lucky, but I didn’t. I found only two birds – a Prairie Warbler and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. It was the wrong time of day, but at least I had tried. I went back to Dagny Johnson for another attempt at finding the cuckoo. I dipped again, went to my motel, and sent Angel and Mariel a note about my failure to find the cuckoo. Angel and Mariel Abreu operate “Nature Is Awesome,” a birding and wildlife tour company, and I would be going out with them on Thursday. I quickly received a reply with specific directions to where the cuckoos are usually found at Dagny.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo.  Photo by Andy Reago.

I really wanted to find the Mangrove Cuckoo on my own rather than have someone show it to me. Even though I had only looked for it once before, it had been one of my most wanted birds for years. And, now I had one day to find it for myself or Angel and Mariel would find it for me the following day. I went to the spot at Dagny that they described and got nothing. So, I walked around for an hour and then went back to the same spot. I played the call. And, the bird answered! First I heard it to the right and then to the left. And, then it perched right over me and I got a great look. I was just numb with disbelief. I watched until the bird moved and then I stepped out into the open circle where the paths converge. And, now the cuckoo was out in the open! This was one of the happiest birding moments of my life.  I didn’t get a photo, but here is a shot of a Mangrove Cuckoo that Mariel Abreu got earlier in the year.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo

I slowly walked back to the car and met Ottawa birder Paul Lagasi as I was about to leave the park. Paul also has a blog, BIRDQUEST2004, which is a showcase for his gorgeous photos. His accounting of this part of the trip is here. Paul wanted the cuckoo as badly as I had. This was his seventh attempt to find it. So, of course, we went back and attempted to relocate the bird. Unfortunately, the bird was done with birders for the day. Paul and I walked the big 2-mile loop in the mid-day head with hopes of finding either the cuckoo or a Black-whiskered Vireo. We had no luck with either bird, so I invited Paul to join me with Angel and Mariel the following morning.

Seaside Dragonlet

Seaside Dragonlet, a “lifer” dragonfly on the 2-mile walk at Dagny Johnson.

Have you guessed what happened? Yep, we missed seeing the cuckoo the next day. We went to the location where it had been reliably seen for months.  The cuckoo called, but refused to come out and show itself. Now I really understood how incredibly lucky I had been the previous day. Paul headed off to pick up his wife at the Ft. Lauderdale airport and Angel, Mariel, and I headed to El Mago de las Fritas for the best fritas in town. Mariel and I had ours with an egg on top of the meat patty. Yum!

White-winged Parakeets in front of Ocean Bank

White-winged Parakeets in front of Ocean Bank

Red-whiskered Bulbul that I photographed in China.

Red-whiskered Bulbul that I photographed in China.

That afternoon, Angel and Mariel took me on a tour of Miami searching for established exotic avian species. Many of these birds are now ABA countable and they found every single one that I needed. That afternoon I added FIVE birds to my ABA list – Spot-breasted Oriole, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-winged Parakeet, Muscovy Duck, and Egyptian Goose. I had seen the Red-whiskered Bulbul many times in China and India, but I still learned something new from Angel. The red patch on the face really is whiskers, just as the bird’s name suggests. If you look closely, you can see the whiskers stand out from the face.

Spot-breasted Oriole.  Photo by Angel Abreu.

Spot-breasted Oriole. Photo by Angel Abreu.

Non-native species frequently create serious environmental problems, including pushing out native species. As far as I know, though, the exotic bird species in Miami have not created any problems. The parakeets, for example, seem to have found a unique niche not utilized by other birds, so there is no competition.

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Mr. & Mrs. Egyptian Goose in the photos above.  The male with the darker neck and breast spot is on the left.  Below, they take their goslings for a swim.

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In addition to the exotic birds that we found, I also enjoyed my best ever looks at a native species, White-crowned Pigeon, which reaches the northernmost limit of its range in Miami.

White-crowned Pigeon

White-crowned Pigeon

We finished the day near dusk with more exotic species, the not yet countable Orange-winded Parakeet and Common Hill Myna, and our first-of-the-season Common Nighthawk. It was a lovely end to a wonderful day. Angel and Mariel not only know where to find the birds, they are incredibly nice people and it was fun to spend a day with them. If you need a birding guide in South Florida, I highly recommend Nature is Awesome. I’d had some wonderful birding, but the trip was not yet over.  Watch for Part 3.

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