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Posts Tagged ‘White-eyed Vireo’

I had planned to be in Texas right now.  I wanted to see my granddaughter and share the delights of High Island with my friend, Diane.  I had almost counted my lifer Black-capped Vireo that I was sure to get this time.  But like nearly everyone else on the planet, my plans were shattered by the coronavirus.  Even if most local regulations don’t prohibit interstate travel, common sense dictates that this is the time to stay home.  Fortunately, I’ve found a new birding game to keep me occupied.

A few years ago, I wrote about Games Birders Play.  Since then Matt Smith has taken birding games to a whole new level with the launch of Fantasy Birding on New Year’s Day 2019.  Matt, a birder, writer, and web designer/developer, works as a GIS analyst and publishes children’s books in his spare time.  He lives with his wife and three kids near Charlottesville, Virginia.

I was slow to join Fantasy Birding, but on a whim I started playing the Carolinas game on March 1.  I didn’t want to start one of the big games (ABA or global) two months behind, but Carolinas just started on March 1.  I’m glad that I decided to play; otherwise I would not have known about the newest game that Matt kicked off at the beginning of April – the Yard Squad Challenge.

This latest game is real life birding, but only in one’s backyard or birding location close enough to walk to, i.e. patch birding.  Fantasy Birding fans across the globe formed seven teams of nine players each.  The draft was held live on Facebook and it was fast and crazy.  The team captains had a spreadsheet with the names and locations of all players along with the number of species that each person expected to observe in April and May.  The first three rounds were public, but the “peanut gallery” enjoyed it so much that Matt extended the drafting in public for another two rounds.  I was amazed and thrilled when Joost Brandsma, a Dutch birder marooned on an obscure island off the European coast, picked me in the fourth round.  Joost trained as a geologist but now work as a data scientist for a biomedical NGO based in Maryland.  I didn’t know Joost or any of the other team leaders, but who wouldn’t want to be on a team named “The Yardbirds”?

Ruby-crowned Kinglets were plentiful and easy to see in the first stretch of the challenge, but difficult to photograph. At least a bit of the ruby crown on this pretty male kinglet is visible.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets were plentiful and easy to see in the first stretch of the challenge, but difficult to photograph. At least a bit of the ruby crown on this pretty male kinglet is visible.

The game will consist of four two-week stretches with winners for each stretch as well as an overall winner.  As I write this, it is day eleven and I have birded in my neighborhood every single day and nowhere else since the challenge started.  I have considered something like this for years, but it’s been too hard to resist running to all the county hotspots chasing birds.  And, that’s if I’m even home during spring migration and not in Florida or Panama or China, all places I’ve been in April or May in past years.

So far, it’s been a combination of tedium and amazement.  I am learning a lot by birding my neighborhood every day and I realize how much I must miss in normal times.  One day, at least a dozen Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooped around the dam between two of our lakes.  Every other day, I have seen no more than two or three.  The day after the swallow extravaganza, the same area was occupied by a flock of about 40 Cedar Waxwings.  They stayed two days and then they were gone.  I have already found a new bird for the neighborhood list bringing it to 131 species – a Palm Warbler near the swallow/waxwing spot.  The list of discoveries goes on and on.  I have found four White-eyed Vireos, a bird that I had seen in my neighborhood only once before.  The story is similar with Blue-headed Vireo, Blue-winged Teal, and Field Sparrow.

Taking a rest from swooping around the lakes, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow poses on a neighbor's garden fence.

Taking a rest from swooping around the lakes, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow poses on a neighbor’s garden fence.

This hasn’t been just like the typical experience of birding my neighborhood only more often; it’s significantly different.  This is real patch birding.  Patch birding is described as regularly birding in a place close to home.  There are no hard and fast rules, but some suggest that the patch should be within a mile of your home; nearly everyone agrees that you should walk to your patch.  And, all descriptions of patch birding suggest birding your patch year round, at least once a week, preferably several times a week.  Previously, I birded in my neighborhood when I felt like it, which might have been a couple of times a week or it might have been weeks or even months between outings in my neighborhood beyond my yard.

It’s the every day habit that is making this an entirely new experience.  Concentrated birding in one small area is resulting in more than learning about the birds in my neighborhood.  I’m learning the rhythms of my patch, the microhabitats that certain species prefer, when the seasonal birds arrive.  I feel more intimacy with the birds.  Since I have a small area to cover, I have the luxury of just staring at a Yellow-rumped Warbler for 20 minutes if I feel like it.  I can soak it all in.  And, when I’m still, just watching and listening, new birds appear that I would normally miss.  Yesterday, I must have stared at the trees in my backyard for nearly half an hour (does this count as meditation?) before I saw a Black-and-white Warbler.  It wasn’t exciting like something rare, but those sweet quiet moments satisfy my soul.

White-eyed Vireos are easy to hear, but hard to photograph. But I'm happy when I can see the white eye.

White-eyed Vireos are easy to hear, but hard to photograph. But I’m happy when I can see the white eye.

The Yardbirds finished the first two-week stretch in second place.  The competition was tough and I’m proud of us and proud of my contributions to the team.  For the second stretch we have one new player on each team plus two entirely new teams.  The competition is heating up, but so is spring migration.  What will happen in the next two weeks?

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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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