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Wild Bird Watching

A diary of birds I've observed, with occasional commentary on wildlife conservation issues, spiced up with photos of varying quality. Captions identifying the birds in these photo montages are found on the Wild Birds intro page.

Wild bird montage shadow
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September 1, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Late summer / early fall birding

I went up to Shenandoah Mountain on Saturday, curious as to whether the neotropical migrant birds have begun their southward sojourn. Indeed, some have, as I saw and photographed a Cape May Warbler, as well as other warbler and vireo species that may be local breeders, rather than migrants. (Cape May Warblers only breed in Canada and a few northerly states.) The photo montage below shows most of what I observed during my brief outing. Individually, none of the photos was really that good, so I just put them in a bunch. Also seen: Black-and-White Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo.

Bird montage 30 Aug 2014

Clockwise from top left: Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco (imm.), Blackburnian Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Black-throated Green Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, and Cape May Warbler..

Shenandoah Mountain is a high-elevation habitat in which some "winter" birds (such as Juncos) breed. The place I visited is just south of the Confederate Breastworks. I have previously seen Scarlet Tanagers there.

Migrating shorebirds

For shorebirds, migration season starts a month or so earlier than for most songbirds and raptors. I was hoping to fill in the many gaps in terms of photographs and my life bird list. These are a few of the nicer recent sightings:

Western Sandpiper

Western Sandpiper, at Leonard's Pond in Rockingham County, on August 12.

White Ibises

White Ibises (immature), at Day's Inn on Bell's Lane, on August 17.

GreatEgret

Great Egret, at Smith's Pond in Swoope, on August 22.

In addition, there was a Glossy Ibis near that Great Egret in Smith's Pond, but my photos weren't good at all. I had a much better view of a Glossy Ibis in Rockingham County in August 2006.


August 27, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Life bird list update

Following up the narrative of my southwestern birding adventures posted earlier this week, I have updated my Life bird list with the following species. All were photographed, except for the Hooded Oriole, White-throated Swift, and Virginia's Warbler. There are 41 species in this list, and there is one additional definite sighting of a bird (Ash-throated Flycatcher) that I had regarded as "probable" when I first saw it in 2003 (in Mexico), so it could be an actual net gain of 42 birds. In any case, it brings my lifetime total up to 452. It's by far my biggest year birdwise since 2005, when I went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

SpeciesDatePlace
Black-throated Sparrow June 24, 2014 Rest stop W of Pecos, TX
Black-chinned Hummingbirds June 25, 2014 Las Cruces, NM
Curve-billed Thrasher June 25, 2014 Rest stop W of Deming, NM
Say's Phoebe June 25, 2014 Rest stop E of San Simon, AZ
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher June 25, 2014 Rest stop, Gila River Indian Res.
Verdin June 25, 2014 Rest stop, Gila River Indian Res.
Hooded Oriole (prob.) June 26, 2014 N of Marana, AZ
White-throated Swift June 26, 2014 N of Marana, AZ
Phainopepla June 26, 2014 N of Marana, AZ
Cactus Wren June 27, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Virginia's Warbler June 27, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Lucy's Warbler June 27, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Gila Woodpecker June 27, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Brown-crested Flycatcher June 27, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Painted Redstart June 27, 2014 Santa Catalina Mountains, AZ
Acorn Woodpecker June 27, 2014 Santa Catalina Mountains, AZ
Spotted Towhee June 27, 2014 Santa Catalina Mountains, AZ
Plumbeous Vireo June 27, 2014 Santa Catalina Mountains, AZ
Yellow-eyed Junco June 27, 2014 Santa Catalina Mountains, AZ
Cordilleran Flycatcher June 27, 2014 Santa Catalina Mountains, AZ
Gambel's Quail June 28, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Lesser Nighthawk June 28, 2014 Sabino Canyon vis. ctr., AZ
Ladder-backed Woodpecker June 28, 2014 Rest stop S of Green Valley, AZ
Canyon Towhee June 28, 2014 Rest stop S of Green Valley, AZ
Rufous-winged Sparrow June 28, 2014 Rest stop S of Green Valley, AZ
Pyrrhuloxia June 28, 2014 Rest stop S of Green Valley, AZ
Gray Hawk June 28, 2014 Nogales, AZ
Bridled Titmouse June 28, 2014 Patagonia, AZ
Bewick's Wren June 28, 2014 Patagonia, AZ
Abert's Towhee June 29, 2014 San Pedro River, AZ
Varied Bunting June 29, 2014 San Pedro River, AZ
Common Ground Dove June 29, 2014 San Pedro River, AZ
Greater Roadrunner June 30, 2014 N of Chiricahua Mountains, AZ
Hepatic Tanager June 30, 2014 Chiricahua Mountains, AZ
Mexican Jay June 30, 2014 Chiricahua Mountains, AZ
Dusky-capped Flycatcher June 30, 2014 Chiricahua Mountains, AZ
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher June 30, 2014 Chiricahua Mountains, AZ
Cinnamon Teal July 1, 2014 Bosque del Apache NWR, NM
Burrowing Owl July 2, 2014 Las Vegas NWR, NM
Bullock's Oriole July 2, 2014 Cimarron Nat. Grassland, KS
Least Tern July 23, 2014 Bluffs golf course, Vermillion, SD

Honorable mentions

In addition, I saw the following birds for the first time in years, or had my best views ever:

  1. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  2. Great-tailed Grackles
  3. White-winged Doves
  4. Cassin's Kingbird
  5. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds
  6. Broad-billed Hummingbird
  7. Spotted Towhee
  8. Vermilion Flycatchers
  9. Yellow-breasted Chat
  10. Blue Grosbeaks
  11. Lesser Goldfinches
  12. Ash-throated Flycatcher #
  13. Mississippi Kite
  14. American Avocet
  15. Black-necked Stilt

# Probably seen Feb. 26, 2003 near Orizba, Mexico.

American Bird Conservancy

More than once during my trip, I noticed signs indicating that various protected areas were made possible by the American Bird Conservancy. It's an organization that is dedicated to supporting efforts to preserve the habitats of neotropical migrant birds in both North and South America. For example, in December 2012 they announced that Peru had "approved two new Private Conservation Areas (PCAs) to conserve a critical area of rapidly disappearing Marañon-Chinchipe dry forests." See www.abcbirds.org. I visited their offices in March 2011 and received some reports and other publications which I shared with other members of the Augusta Bird Club. It's a very worth cause.


August 25, 2014 [LINK / comment]

West by Southwest: Birding in the desert

It was nearly a month ago that I returned home from an extended summer vacation out west that included multiple objectives, including (of course) birds! (See also my desert scenery travelogue, to be posted tomorrow, and my baseball road trip, which was posted last July 31.) My main destination was southern Arizona, well known as a haven for a wide variety of semi-tropical birds that are found nowhere else in the United States. Although I missed a few target birds, my endeavors were quite successful overall.

The rest of this blog post is an extended version of an article that I submitted for publication in the Augusta Bird Club newsletter. It is divided into four main sections, corresponding to the three legs of my trip in late June and early July, plus a section for South Dakota and Nebraska, where I birded in July. Bold face letters denote first sightings (on this trip) of special birds (mostly life birds), and red letters denote special birding locations. For each region, I created a photo montage to summarize the bird highlights, and I have added separate photos of some of the most striking birds that I saw.

Going west: South-central plains

Getting to the ultimate destination of Arizona was quite a challenge in itself. For a variety of reasons, I decided to drive out to the Midwest rather than fly, and likewise I drove all the way from the Midwest to Arizona, with my father as passenger as far as New Mexico. Things got off to a good start in the "Show Me" state of Missouri, during a brief side trip into the city of Joplin, where we saw a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. I had to do a sudden U-turn on a busy street to take advantage of the photo opportunity, and the effort paid off. I had seen that species three times before: once in Oklahoma (1998), once in Nicaragua (2005), and once in the hamlet of Hermitage, northwest of Waynesboro, in June 2009. (My report to VARCOM in 2009 was rejected, however, because there was no photographic evidence, and the light conditions were mediocre.) The other ten or so Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were in central Texas.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, east of Roscoe, Texas.

Among other birds unique to the south-central plains region that we saw were Great-tailed Grackles, first seen in southern Oklahoma, and White-winged Doves, first seen in downtown Dallas. The farther we drove, the more common Western Kingbirds became. Heading west from Dallas-Fort Worth, the grasslands gradually thinned and turned into parched scrublands, eventually turning into parched deserts as we crossed the Pecos River into western Texas. That is where I saw my first Black-throated Sparrows, as well as more White-winged Doves.

Destination: Arizona or bust!

After visiting with my aunt and uncle in Las Cruces, New Mexico (where my father stayed for the next few days), I resumed the westward trek on June 25. In western New Mexico, approaching the awe-inspiring Animas Valley, I saw my first Curve-billed Thrasher. Soon after that, I crossed into Arizona and saw a Say's Phoebe and a Cassin's Kingbird at two successive rest stops. I was in a hurry to get to see a baseball game in Phoenix that evening,* or else I might have spent more time at the rest stops along I-10 at Dragoon Mountains especially the one on Gila River Indian Reservation. That is where I saw my first Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Verdins. Eurasian Collared Dove.

* Inside Chase Field, with the roof closed, I saw two Mourning Doves perched on a support wire, during a Diamondbacks-Indians baseball game!

Desert birds (clockwise from top left): Verdin, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Painted Redstart, Gray Hawk, Cactus Wren, Acorn Woodpecker, Gambel's Quail, and in the center, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Arizona.

I didn't have a specific itinerary for my trip, but had a rough idea of my priority target areas based on a book on birding in Arizona which my brother John lent to me. (He has been there at least three times.) My first target area (on June 26) was the irrigated farmlands north of Marana, which is northwest of Tucscon. It seemed like a strange place for birds, in the middle of soybean fields and pecan orchards, but it proved fairly productive. I was pleased to see Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Phainopeplas at several locations, as well as Verdins and (probable) Hooded Orioles. I almost got a great closeup photo of a Summer Tanager before it flew away, which I bitterly regretted, but I had another chance a couple days later, fortunately. Late in the afternoon I briefly drove inside Saguaro National Park west of Tucson, but didn't see much other than a Raven. They are fairly common in the desert southwest, which is beyond the range of any crow species.

The next day (June 27) at the Sabino Canyon visitor's center, I saw my first Cactus Wrens, a Lucy's Warbler, a Gila Woodpecker, and a Brown-crested Flycatcher. That is a beautiful facility, with lots of information for birders and other nature lovers. But it was extremely hot (reaching 110 degrees), so to escape the desert heat, I decided to explore the Santa Catalina Mountains, northeast of Tucscon. About one-third of the way up, at Middle Bear picnic area, I came across my first Painted Redstarts, Acorn Woodpeckers, Spotted Towhees, a Plumbeous Vireo (similar to the Blue-headed Vireo), some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (like we have in the east), and Yellow-eyed Juncos. Driving to an even higher elevation, in the midst of a cool, lush coniferous forest, I found several Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, a Broad-billed Hummingbird (with a striking bluish throat and green belly), plus a Cordilleran Flycatcher. Finally, near the summit of Mount Lemmon (9,000+ foot elevation), I saw a few Wild Turkeys. That was very unexpected! It was getting late in the afternoon, so I had to hurry back to Tucson before dusk.

The next morning (June 28), I paid a quick return trip to the Sabino Canyon visitor center, where I saw many more Verdins, and even some Purple Martins; that was a surprise. (NOTE: For lack of time, I decided against taking the tour bus up into Sabino Canyon itself, so I probably missed a few good birds up there. Private automobiles are not allowed in there.) I kept looking in vain for a reported Greater Roadrunner, in vain, but finally got some satisfaction when I spotted a pair of Gambel's Quails. Unfortunately, they kept scurrying away, and I only got one mediocre photo. But the biggest thrill was when I came upon a strange brown-camouflaged bird resting on the ground. I got some great closeup photos before it flew away, and later determined that it was a Lesser Nighthawk. Wow!

Lesser Nighthawk, at the Sabino Canyon visitor center, Arizona.

From the Tucson area, I headed south along I-19 and decided to bypass Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains. (That's another birding hot spot I missed.) At a rest stop south of Green Valley, I saw a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a Canyon Towhee, a Rufous-winged Sparrow, and my first-ever Pyrrhuloxia, not far from its more familiar relative, the Northern Cardinal. Within a mile or so of the Mexican border, in Nogales, I heard the scream of a raptor, and before long spotted a Gray Hawk in the tree tops. I spent over a half hour tracking it down to get in good position for a photo, and the results justified the effort. Then I turned northeast toward the town of Patagonia, near which there is a famous nature preserve operated by the Nature Conservancy. It was in that vicinity that I spotted Vermilion Flycatchers (which I had seen before in Mexico), and my first Bridled Titmouse, Lucy's Warblers, and Bewick's Wren. But best of all was getting an excellent look at a bird that I have seen only rarely here in the east: a Yellow-breasted Chat!

Yellow-breasted Chat, in Patagonia, Arizona.

The next day (June 29) I spent a few hours in the San Pedro River Riparian Area, just east of Sierra Vista and adjacent Fort Huachuca. It's a veritable oasis in the middle of the desert, and therefore a magnet for a huge variety of colorful birds. Just outside the visitor's center (which features a friendly bookstore/gift shop) there were several Blue Grosbeaks, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Lesser Goldfinches. Along the river itself, and the nearby pond, I saw Summer Tanagers, Vermilion Flycatchers, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an Abert's Towhee, a Varied Bunting (female), a pair of American Coots (!?), and some Common Ground Doves, among others mentioned in above paragraphs. Another birder I met there had seen some male Varied Buntings, and I was disappointed not to. But no matter, I was delirious with sensory overload. smile San Pedro River is a very special place, so I got myself a souvenir hat to replace my Augusta Bird Club hat, which I lost somewhere in the Tucson area. frown

Summer Tanager, at the San Pedro River, Arizona.

My final target area in Arizona was the Chiricahua Mountains, where Elegant Trogons are often seen -- but alas, not by me on this trip. (I had seen one in Costa Rica in 2005.) But as I approached the mountains along a dusty desert road in the early morning of June 30, I finally got lucky with great views of two of two other target birds: a Greater Roadrunner, and a Gambel's Quail. At the Ranger's Station, where I was given lots of friendly information, I saw my first-ever Hepatic Tanager, and in the canyons and mountains up ahead I saw Mexican Jays, a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher. I thought I heard a Black-throated Gray Warbler singing, but it turned out to be a Yellow-eyed Junco. That was weird. Some of the roads up there are pretty rugged, so I decided against going to the higher-elevation Rustler Peak, where various warblers, etc. are said to breed.

Returning east: South-central plains

The final leg of my adventure (when my father rejoined me, on July 1) took us north along the Rio Grande through New Mexico. In the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, there were many Double-crested Cormorants, Pied-bill Grebes, two Greater Roadrunners, and my first-ever Cinnamon Teals. There were many hummingbirds at the visitor center, but overall, the number of birds didn't justify the lengthy time we spent.

Further north, on the morning of July 2, we stopped at the Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada!) National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw a Vesper Sparrow, Western Meadownlarks, Western Kingbirds, and a Cassin's Kingbird. The ranger suggested a circuit route for us to take, but there wasn't much birding activity so we decided to cut it short. But just as we were about to exit, I spotted a large brown bird perched on a fence post. Could it be? Yes, a Burrowing Owl, which flew away just after I clicked the camera shutter! Later that day, in the panhandle of Oklahoma, we saw a pair of Swainson's Hawks, and I pulled over by the side of the highway to get some photos. Soon thereafter we crossed into Kansas at the town of Elkhart, got some advice at the headquarters for the Cimarron National Grassland. I made a big mistake by taking a side road which turned out to be a primitive, rutted dirt track. We're lucky we didn't get stuck in the middle of nowhere. I heard (but never saw) a Bobwhite, and saw both Eastern and Western Kingbirds, and got a blurry long-distance photo of a Bullock's Oriole, the western relative of the Baltimore Oriole. Nice, but it didn't justify the time spent or the danger incurred. Then around mid-afternoon at a rest stop on the east side of Dodge City, Kansas, I had my first good look at a Mississippi Kite, as well as a great closeup look at a Western Kingbird. Late in the afternoon, in a wetland area called Cheyenne Bottoms near the center of the state, I saw several American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Even more big surprises!

In Salina, Kansas, on the morning of July 3, we saw two Mississippi Kites flying around, one of which was St. John's Military School. A third one was brooding in a nest high up in a tree. How about that!? Then we drove north through Nebraska, but didn't see much along the way. We crossed into South Dakota and returned home in Vermillion late in the afternoon.

Grassland birds (clockwise from top left): Western Kingbird, Burrowing Owl, Black-throated Sparrow, Swainson's Hawk, White-winged Dove, Cinnamon Teal, Mississippi Kite, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and American Avocet.

Overall, I saw a total of 40 new bird species during that trip, give or take a couple. (I will update my Life bird list page and my Wild Birds, yearly photo gallery page later today.) My casual approach to bird traveling isn't for everyone, but I get more enjoyment out of spontaneous discovery. If I had gone on one of those guided tours, I'm sure I would have seen more species. Likewise, I really should have knocked on doors of some of the houses where bird feeders are maintained in places such as Portal, Arizona. My big "misses" included Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, and Blue-throated Hummingbirds. (I learned that many more hummingbirds are seen in Arizona late in the summer, after the typical heavy rains and bird migration begin.) But whatever travel approach you prefer, southern Arizona should be near the top of any serious birder's "bucket list" of places to see. You won't be disappointed!

Also: South Dakota & Nebraska

Most of my vacation time was spent in "The Prairie State" of South Dakota, with a couple brief forays into neighboring Nebraska. Even before I headed out to the southwestern deserts, I got some good bird photos at Spirit Mound and vicinity. Dickcissels are very common along country roads, about as common as Indigo Buntings are in the rural east. I got great closeup photos of those, as well as of Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles, at various locations. Same thing goes for Red-headed Woodpecker, which is the most common woodpecker species in the rural Midwest. I only saw a Lark Sparrow twice, but I got a superb closeup photo of one.

On July 9, my father and I drove down to Adams Natural Area, near North Sioux City, South Dakota. Highlights there included Red-headed Woodpecker, Dickcissels, both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, a Common Yellowthroat, a Warbling Vireo, both Western and Eastern Kingbirds, and a dozen or more Wood Ducks (mothers with babies).

On July 10, my father, John, and I drove down to the Missouri River landing southeast of Burbank, South Dakota. There we saw an immature Bald Eagle soaring above, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, an Indigo Bunting, a Common Yellowthroat, a Warbling Vireo, plus the usual orioles, Eastern Kingbird, etc.

On July 14, my father and I took a casual drive northeast of town and saw some Horned Larks, plus more Dickcissels. The next day we drove near the Missouri River south of town, and saw more Horned Larks, plus a female Yellow Warbler, Eastern Kingbirds, and a pair (M & F) of Blue Grosbeaks. On July 16 I saw a House Wren and Orchard Oriole in Cotton Park, along the Vermillion River.

South Dakota birds (clockwise from top left): Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Dickcissel, Red-headed Red-headed Woodpecker, Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Least Tern, Bald Eagle (immature), and in center, Baltimore Oriole.

On July 17 we went on a lengthier trip, first to Clay County Park, on the Missouri River. There I saw Red-headed Woodpeckers (including a juvenile), a singing male Yellow Warbler, and an Eastern Wood Pewee. Later on, at the Vermillion Prairie Nature Conservancy preserve, we saw a Dickcissel at very close range, and I got a nice photo. Finally, at Spirit Mound, I saw a male Blue Grosbeak. I was surprised how many of those there were in South Dakota.

In my final visit to Spirit Mound, on July 22, I saw what I thought were LeConte's Sparrows, but after looking at the photos I decided they had to be (female and juvenile) Bobolinks. Too bad I never saw a male, though I did hear one singing nearby. There was also a Common Yellowthroat singing vigorously. A few miles to the northeast, in the flooded plain of the Vermillion River valley, I saw several dozen Great Blue Herons, many Killdeers, a gull of some sort, and two shorebirds: a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Willet.

On July 23, we made one last road trip, crossing the Missouri River south of Vermillion and heading west to Niobrara, Nebraska, where I saw a Common Yellowthroat, some Orchard Orioles, and a Bell's Vireo. From the parking lot on the north side of the Missouri River bridge (first time I had been there), we saw dozens of swallows (Cliff, I assume), and an Eastern Phoebe. At a farm pond along Highway 50 heading back east, I saw 20 or so Ring-billed Gulls. At Gavin's Point Dam west of Yankton, I saw Orchard Oriole, and some Yellow Warblers.

On my final day in South Dakota, July 24, I spotted a Least Tern flying around a pond on The Bluffs Golf Course, and I was lucky to get a couple adequate photos of it. They are fast and acrobatic, suddenly diving after small fish! I also photographed a Northern Flicker on the ground at close range.

The final bird observations of note during my trip were on July 25, when I saw a Western Kingbird outside TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, and another one perched on a support wire inside Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, during a Royals-Indians baseball game!



tiny tanager

Favorite warblers
(already seen):

  1. Chestnut-sided warbler
  2. Magnolia warbler
  3. Prothonotary warbler
  4. Blackburnian warbler
  5. Yellow warbler
  6. Northern parula
  7. Black-throated green warbler
  8. Canada warbler
  9. Common yellowthroat
  10. American redstart

Yet-unseen warblers:
(eastern species)

  • Blue-winged warbler
  • Kirtland's warbler
  • Swainson's warbler
  • Bachman's warbler (extinct?)

Yet-unseen warblers:
(western & semitropical)

  • Virginia's warbler
  • Lucy's warbler
  • Colima warbler
  • Crescent-chested warbler
  • Tropical parula
  • Black-throated gray warbler
  • Golden-cheeked warbler
  • Townsend's warbler
  • Hermit warbler
  • Grace's warbler
  • MacGillivray's warbler
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Belding's yellowthroat
  • Gray-crowned yellowthroat
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Red-faced warbler
  • Painted redstart
  • Slate-throated redstart
  • Fan-tailed warbler
  • Golden-crowned warbler

"Abundant" birds
(ones I normally don't bother counting):

  • European starlings
  • House sparrows
  • Cardinals
  • Tufted timice
  • Carolina chickadees
  • Carolina wrens *
  • Song sparrows
  • House finches *
  • Gray catbirds *
  • Mockingbirds
  • American robins *
  • Blue jays
  • Common grackles *
  • American crows
  • Fish crows *
  • Turkey vultures
  • Canada geese
  • Mallards

  • * Sometimes less common