Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Tale of Two Chickens

Well, neither are really chickens, per se.  The Greater Prairie Chicken is classified under Turkeys and Grouse and the Scaled Quail is, well, a Quail.    Since arriving in Texas I had been searching for both. After leaving the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival I drove to the Attwater Greater Prairie Chicken NWR. You'd think that if you're going to put the name of a bird in your title, you'd at least have a decent shot at finding said bird.

I arrived after sunset on Saturday evening, so stayed in the small town of Sealy overnight and drove to the Prairie Chicken place first thing in the morning and drove the Auto Route for nearly two hours without even a hint of chicken, or grouse or turkey.   Plenty of doves and sparrows and Crested Caracaras. There were various flycatchers and a few stray warblers, but nothing I could serve for Thanksgiving Dinner.

What's red and white and never seen all over?

I spent the next day looking for my Texas Nemesis birds, the Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater. Obviously, I once again struck out.  I'm not going to give up.   I know these guys are out there somewhere.  And speaking of places with the names of absent birds, I would love to one day see a Seedeater in the WCSE Wildlife Refuge.  By the way, anyone know the difference between a "Refuge," a "Preserve," and a "Reserve?"

On Monday I had to return to Houston to return to Toronto before Sue forgot who I was and leased out my side of the bed to a homeless family of cats. I stopped by Falcon State Park and was determined not to leave until I found the resident Scaled Quail. I'm lucky I am still not there.  It took a while, but sometime early in the afternoon the first Scaled Quail appeared. They are also known as Cottontops, for the little white tufts of feathers that form a crest a the top of their heads.

Eventually there were three of them, feeding amongst the Green Jays, Pyrrhuloxia, Grackles, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Green Kingfishers, Kingsbirds and even Red-winged Blackbirds.   I also had a wonderful look at a Harris's Hawk, in the scrub behind the Recreation Center, which seems to be the best place to bird in Falcon State Park. I birded the area until 12:30, but had to get on the road if I was to make it to the Greater Prairie Chicken homestead by sunset, to see those darn turkeys.

I arrived in perfect time to have three passes around the nearly four mile Auto Loop. Again, more doves, more flycatchers and more Crested Caracaras. On my first trip to Texas I had been lucky to see just one pair along the highway on my way to the Rio Grande Valley. Now I was seeing them everywhere, on fences, in flight, on telephone poles.

But no Greater Prairie Chickens. At one point I thought I had them, way ahead in the gloom of twilight, on a dirt side road. But no, just more doves.

Don't get me wrong. Target binding aside, the last two days in Texas was some of the best solo birding I've done all year. Add that to my time in Florida and Louisiana, and I had a Big Two Weeks, while adding 10 new birds to my Big Year.

As for getting home, that is as much a story as the birding.  I originally had a flight home from Tampa Bay on Air Canada, but since I was in Texas, I'd have to fly back to Tampa, pay the change fee to fly a day later and pay for a flight to Tampa.  Didn't add up.  So, what do I do?  I turn to Expedia to get me home from Houston.  I arranged to drop the car off at George Bush International Airport, and was told, to my horror, that there would be a $500 drop off fee for not dropping it off in Louisiana where I rented it.  Heck, the car had a New Mexico Licence plate.  It was closer to home here than where I rented it.  I eventually negotiated a more realistic drop fee and proceeded to book my flight home.

I suppose, when you have flown as many miles as I have, doing this Big Year, problems and mistakes are bound to happen.  And in this case, boy did they happen.  In Spades, so to speak.  Firstly, when I booked the flight, it seemed like a straight forward, Houston-Charlotte-Toronto deal.  What I failed to notice before I clicked Enter, was that it was really a Houston-Charlotte-Orlando-Toronto deal.  What the heck?  How did Expedia mess that one up?  They were charging me less money to fly me on one extra plane, that was way out of the way.  I called to have it fixed.  No luck there.  The storm of the century, had ruined many travel plans for many people, so my issue was small potatoes.  The wait time was between 2 and 3 HOURS!

So, I made due with what I had.  Except I also didn't notice until too late that getting to Orlando was the easy part.  It was with US Airways.  However, American was taking up the final leg and partnering with WestJet to get me home.  See where this is going yet?  I don't blame you.  I didn't either.  Until I checked my suitcase and was handed a luggage claim check, with the fateful words, "Your bag is checked all the way through to Orlando."

I protested, but was too late.  The bag was gone and he didn't have any record of my AA-Westjet flight on his computer.  So, okay.  I had to pick up my suitcase in Orlando and go to WestJet and check my bag there.  I even checked in for the flight on line, so as to save time.  However, there was only a 1 hour and 15 minute layover.  By the time I got my bag and made my way to the WestJet counter, the flight had closed, since international flights stop taking luggage check ins 1 hour prior to boarding.

Now, to the nice lady at the WestJet counter's credit, she did book me on a flight at 7am on Wednesday morning, at no extra charge.  I asked for a hotel voucher.  Noooop!  Sorry, that wasn't their problem.  Well it was someone's problem.  She suggested I go over to American.  I looked over at their counter.  There were 500 storm displaced people in that line with worse problems than me.  My only hope was to go over to US Airways and see if maybe, since they they were the ones who didn't send my luggage to Toronto in the first place.

Now things started turning my way.  I met Paul B. at the US airlines counter and he was a first class gentleman and provided me with fantastic customer service.  He called American and got the flight "opened up," what ever that means, and proceeded to find me a flight that left this evening and though I would get in at midnight, I wouldn't have to pay for a hotel tonight.  Better still, because it was with US Airways, a member of the Star Alliance.  What does that mean?  It means I use my Aeroplan card and get air miles toward another free flight this year.  Does it get better?  Sure.  My flight to Toronto from Charlotte,(yes it's my second time here today), is in First Class.  How about that!


More Birds:

And Beasts:

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Hi Ho Hi Ho, It's Off to Bird We Go

Day two of the Yellow Rice and Rails Festival started before dawn as a group of us met in the lobby of the Hampton Inn to plan a trip to the Kisatchie National Forest.  It was 75 miles and nearly an hour and a half drive up to the place from Jennings.  Our seven car convoy, unlike the seven dwarfs heading off to the Lucky Charms mines, did not have the merriest of drives.  Crazy Louisiana drivers on numerous occasions passed on the left, even into oncoming traffic, and on one occasion cut directly in front of me.  On another occasion, just before I made a right turn, a large transport truck blew through the intersection and honked a the cars in front of him.  Crazy.

However, we did get to the forest after a 30 minute rest and bathroom stop, something I am sure the dwarfs never had to bother with.  Our leader, Daniel Lane, had three target birds for us, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachman's Sparrow and Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  With the help of his, well, helpers, we quickly found the nuthatch high in a tree and go okay looks and photos of it.  After the group had a good look at it we went in search of the sparrow.  Dan played it's call on his iPod and it didn't take long for the helpers to find it in a bush.  We then teamed up to surround the bush and in short order the Bachman's Sparrow hopped up to the top and we all got great looks and photos of it.

The rest of the morning was spent trying and failing to find the woodpecker, in various locations, though they did find a fine variety of bird species, including the first fall record of a Red-breasted Nuthatch for the forest.  As it was getting on toward lunch time Dan suggested we go to another location and see if we could find a Henslow's Sparrow, and then they were all going to go get a Mexican Lunch, sans me as I don't eat mexican food.  However, something went wrong along the way and after about 45 minutes the convoy pulled into the Mexican place.  I was a little bit cranky over having to drive 38 miles, just to turn around and head back to the forest.

Luckily I had saved one of the woodpecker locations in my gps and headed right back to that spot, and spent the the rest of the afternoon searching the forest for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  I drove from location to location inspecting every woodpecker tree.  They are marked with white rings on the trees and every habitat that has the woodpeckers has a nice yellow sign indicating their presence.  However they were pretty much absent all afternoon.  Around 4pm, after nearly two hours of searching, I headed back to my GPS'd locating, as it was the largest of the many woodpecker areas.

I walked around, scanned the treees and was treated to a lovely Brown-headed Nuthatch Show, including a few good photos.  I figured that if I stayed around long enough at least one of the woodpeckers would return to nest for the night.  Well, as it was getting close to 5pm and with the sun dipping toward the horizon, I heard a call, then saw what I thought was a woodpecker fly through and across to the other side of the road.  I abandoned the nuthatches and hurried over.  Just as I raised my binoculars, though, the bird flew back to my side of the road.  I followed, listened for its call and heard and saw it pecking above my head.  I got a good look at it, to confirm it was, indeed, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  I followed it to another tree, and lost it, found it again after seeing some bark fall to the ground.  I finally got a got my camera on it and took some nice photos.

On my way out of the park I ran into a small group of the birders who had missed out on the woodpecker earlier and had come back to search after lunch.  I pulled over and asked them if they had seen the bird.  Nope.  I smiled and said I had.  They were thrilled.  Asked me where and when.  I showed them the photos I took and the map on my iPhone that gave them directions to where I had seen it.  I don't know if they found it, but I expect they did, as more of them should have been returning to roost in the trees for the night.

It turned out to be a long but fun and successful day.  I got three year birds, and when added to the Yellow Rail from the previous day, I am leaving Louisiana and the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival with 548 species for the year.  Ya'all should go to Louisiana and see the rails sometime.  Try the crawfish.  I did.  One was enough.

Friday, 26 October 2012

50 Shades of Yellow Rails

 1:   This festival certainly revs up the nerdy level comparable to the Hawk Watch and Owl Banding groups.

 2:   Oddly, in a group of nerdy-ly dressed birders, I was voted, by one nice lady, as best dressed based on my Tilly Hat and Scottevest.

 3:   At the age of 52 I think I was the youngest man in the room on the first day orientation.

 4:   There is a lot more to Rice production than you might expect.

 5:   Consumer Reports says arsenic in rice is killing people.  Arsenic is not a problem.  There is such a small amount that it does no harm.  If the amount of arsenic in rice were bad for you there would be no Cajuns. Or Chinese.

 6:   Mandatory Dork Badges worn by all make us look more like we are at a chiropractor convention, rather than a birding festival.

Okay, I don't think I can keep this up and get to 50.  It was a lame idea anyway.  Besides, after two long days of searching for Yellow Rails in two different rice fields, I am exhausted and can barely type this.  I'd get Siri to type it but if I tried to talk I'd just ramble on and Siri doesn't like that.

Anyhoo, on day one in the field that our group was sent to, it was hot, very hot.  It was wet.  Very wet. We had to wade through tractor ruts filled with water while we trailed the combine searching for rails as the rice was being harvested.  There were lots of Sora and many Virginia Rail, but over the course of nearly 6 hours there were no Yellow Rails.  Reports from the other farm seemed to indicate there were about 4 seen by many of the other folks.  I did get to ride in the cockpit of the combine and that was very cool.

At the end of the day I was dirty, tired and ready for more birds.  In this case a trip down the highway to a suburban movie theatre to watch one of the worst movies ever made, "Birdemic: Shock and Terror."  It was a special presentation from the folks at Rifftrax.  If you are unfamiliar with them, they used to do a little puppet show called "Mystery Science Theater: 3000."  Anyway these guys are are brilliantly funny at making fun of really bad movies.  In this case, a really bad movie about birds attacking the small California town of Half Moon Bay.  Glad they didn't attack when I was there.

Today started off with fog.  Lots of fog.  Forecasts of thundershowers.  It didn't look good for rails.  While we waited for the fog to lift and the rice to try out for harvest, a bunch of us went to a grass runway in the middle of a farm where, either at sometime in the past or, perhaps, sometime in the future, a small plane will land.  We were hoping a Sprague's Pipit.  We walked the length of the runway and found many Swamp, Vesper and Savannah Sparrows, and hundreds of migrating White-faced Ibis.

Afterwards I went over to the field where we were going to spend the day hunting Yellow Rails and watch the bird banders band birds.  It was a fun and exciting day.  It looked all day like it was going to rain, yet the rain held off and let us spend a cool and windy day watching the combine flush more and more Sora and Virginia Rails.  By late in the afternoon we were beginning to think this would be the year without Yellow Rails.  Then, on the opposite side of the field I was in, several people finally saw their first Yellow Rail.  I missed it!  I was worried it was the only rail sighting of the day.

I shouldn't have despaired.  The next time around I finally saw my first Yellow Rail.  It flushed into some bushes while myself and two other birders looked on.  It was Sandy's first Yellow Rail of the festival too.  I met Sandy back in Cape May, when I birded with Edna.

Things got better from there.  Mostly.  Sandy I and I decided to walk along with the combine and hope to get better looks for him and a photograph for me.  Along the way, as we traversed the rut infested rice field, I pulled a groin muscle.  I have never had a pulled groin before.  It hurts and makes it doubly difficult to walk the fields.  I was falling behind Sandy, but it turned out in my favor, as the combine flushed a Yellow Rail that I was able to get a great look at, as it flew into the next field.  I was able to clearly see the white wing patches, though once again I did not get a photo.

While we waited for the combine to make another pass, I was alerted to a group of birders over at the edge of a cut field where they were looking at some geese.  I went over and it wasn't just some geese, it was a true gaggle of geese.  There were Ross's Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and my second new bird of the day, Snow Geese.  This was turning into a pretty grand day.  Not only had the rain held off, but it was not too hot at all.  In fact, it was getting windier and cooler as the day progressed, but we were all having a great time.

It wasn't until the third rail was flushed and found that I finally got the photograph, though not a great one.  It turns out these guys are not only very difficult to see, they are very difficult to photograph and that is why it takes a combine running through a rice field for any chance of seeing, let alone taking pictures of  these reclusive birds, but beautiful birds.  The bird banders caught one in their net and everyone was also able to view one close up as it was weighed, measured, banded and released back into the rice fields.

It was great day.  Long and messy and I didn't fall in the mud today, as I had yesterday.  I got to see the Yellow Rails and that certainly lessened the pain of my pulled groin.  Tomorrow is a trip to Pineywoods and a chance to add three or four new birds to my growing list, which now stands at 545.  I have also made plans to head into Texas tomorrow afternoon and head for the Attwater Greater Prairie Chicken NWR, where I hope to see, not surprisingly, a Greater Prairie Chicken.

And with that:

50: Photographs can tell the story better than anything I can say...

Virginia Rail


Migrating Ibis,(mostly White-faced)

Gaggle of Geese: Ross's, Greater White-fronted and Snow

Yellow Rail

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Yellow Rice and Rails...

... or is it Yellow Rails and Rice?  Not sure what colour the rice is, but the rails are a shade of yellow.  It's nearly midnight here and I just drove nearly 3 hours from New Orleans, so forgive me if I am not thinking straight.

I am here in Jennings, Louisiana for the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival, 2012.  I could never have predicted back in January that my travels would have taken me here to ride a farmer's rice harvester, with the expectation of flushing Yellow Rails and other timid birds, such as Sora, from the fields as the rice is harvested.  I also have a small list of other Louisiana specialties,(birds, not Cajan cooking), that I hope to find while here too.

With that said, I shall turn in for the night and awake with the excitement of seeing the Yellow Rails or the fear of falling off the combine and becoming a tragic story re-told someday in Reader's Digest, as the Big Year Birder who was harvested along with the rice.

Good night.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

One Bird, One Day at a Time

I wish I could honestly report I had seen, photographed and counted a White-crowned Pigeon.  I really do.  I might, in fact, have watched two of them fly right over my head yesterday, in A.D. Barns Park in the suburbs of Miami.  But I got no picture and just a quick look through my binoculars.  That is not to say, I haven't seen anything.  Two birds, two days.  Well, more if you count the ABA uncountable Hill Myna, and various parakeets, none of which were the sought after White-winged Parakeet.

On Sunday, returning from the Everglads, I stopped at Larry Manfredi's home in Homestead and we sat in his back yard and watched Shiny Cowbirds, both male and female, cavorting amongst his bushes.  Larry has been so nice to me, even though we never did get to go out birding, officially.  He alerted me to the Fork-tailed Flycatcher and was nice enough to have me to his home.  Hopefully I can repay the favor and hire him for a day of birding south Florida sometime.

Yesterday, once again searching for a few last birds before heading back to Tampa and on to Louisiana, I was again in A.D. Barns Park when I woman, ran up to me, nearly out of breath, to announce Spot-breasted Orioles had just been seen nearby.  She asked, "Are you looking for the Spot-breasted Oriole?"  "Wow!" I said, "How did you know that?"  Somehow she knew I was a birder.  Perhaps it was the vest and funny hat?  How lucky am I, sometimes?  She directed me to an empty field and within minutes two Spot-breasted Orioles shot right by me, not 5 feet from my nose, and vanished into some trees on the other side of a fence.  I then hoped they would reappear for a photo and yes, they did oblige me.

Though I didn't get the Red-whiskered Bulbul,(it's just not around now), and I was too late for the Black-whiskered Vireo, and I have just been in the right places at the wrong time for the White-crowned Pigeon, I can't complain.  I've added 4 birds in 5 days and still have 4 days in Louisiana and a couple of days in Texas left before I head home again.

Once again, I am grateful to the kindness of strangers and can't thank the birding community enough for all the help I have received as continue my quest for 600.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Now, all I Need is a Spoon and a Knife...

... because I finally have a fork!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher that is. If this were a movie loosely based on the Star Trek movie franchise, it would be called: Bird Trek: Nemesis.

This fork tailed fiend has eluded me at every turn until today.  Twice in February Sue and I stood in the middle if a swelteringly hot field not finding a bird that pretty much everyone else seemed to find with ease.  Twice when one had been seen on the east coast I was on the west coast. And finally, I nearly succumbed to heat exposure and dehydration,(okay that was partially my fault), chasing it near Orlando.

But thanks to the following series of events, the Forked One is now Big Year Bird # 540.

First, I contacted Sandy Komito about birding together in south Florida this week. Bad timing, as he is on his way to Africa,(like me, he can't sit still for long).  Sandy gave me the name and number of his birding buddy Larry, who invited me down to Homestead to see Shiny Cowbirds at his feeder after I birded the Miami area, today.

I was looking for White-crowned Pigeon: Swing and a miss; Red-whiskered Bulbul: Steeerike Two; and finally Spot-breasted Oriole: Strike Three! One out.

I was now on my way to Homestead to meet Larry at his place and called for directions, when he told me he was on his way to Big Pine Key, two hours south, where a Fork-tailed Flycatcher had been seen earlier this morning.   I decided to sacrifice on the cowbird, and with two away late in the game, I raced south on Highway 1, hoping not to be late again. On my first pass through Big Pine Key I completely missed them, but did see a lovely Key Deer and his mommy.

I called Larry from a parking area where the bird had originally been reported and he said to get there quickly, as he and his son were looking at it as he spoke.  They were two minutes down the road at the Visitor's Center. How convenient and kind of the bird to locate himself near free parking.

Once I parked, they waved me over and pointed up to the wire, where, finally I was just on time for the bird.   Fact was, they had been searching for two hours while I drove in air conditioned comfort.  About time, I say.

But not only that, the fork-tailed was consorting with, of all things, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. How about them apples for a bonus double rarity.  There was even a Gray Kingbird as another bonus,(541).  While we took photos others arrived, but within an hour, or less both all but the Gray and Eastern Kingbirds were gone, and the late arrivals had to feel the sting of fork-tailed disappointment.

Tomorrow I am heading down to Key West after spending the night in a lovely little resort on the Gulf, in my own private cabin that was recommended and booked by the nice lady at the Visitor's Center I was brought to by my new best friend.   I got to sleep happy and with a full stomach, thanks to dinner just up the road, which included amazing lobster cakes, a rum runner and the best-ever key lime pie.

Oh, on the way to Miami I did stop a lot and at Oscar Scherer State Park got some nice photos if the Florida Scrub Jay and along the way, a few others with my brand new Sony Alpha 57, which I really love like no other camera I have ever used.

The Elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher, finally brought to justice before my camera:

Top is the Scissor-tailed, below the Fork-tailed.  Forks are longer than scissors, I guess.

Florida Scrub Jay:

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Can I Boreal a Bag of Owls? Sure, don't Saw-whet it?

So, I drove 6 hours up to Hilliardton Marsh yesterday so I could see at least one Boreal Owl.  I saw two, and a Saw-whet Owl, got to hold a Boreal Owl and see and photograph one Boreal Owl in a Pine Tree before the night was done.  It was one of the coolest things I've done this year and the furthest, I think, I've driven for just one bird.

After a few false starts and after having gotten lost in the pitch blackness that is District Road 569 and then finally finding, deep in the woods, the owl banding station, run by Bruce Murphy and his merry band of "banders," I was treated to an evening of bird talk, muddy walks in the woods and a short education on how to tell the age of an owl, using funky black-light technology.  Apparently owl wings glow purple under ultra-violet in younger owls and it diminishes as they get older.

After finding and banding a Saw-whet Owl, and seeing it was a first year bird, Bruce and one of his student assistants, Maggie, took me out in their pick-up truck to see the Boreal Owls deep within the woods.  We had to chase a young moose along a crazy-bumpy path, park in what seemed like the dead centre of the Boreal Forest, and walk through ankle deep mud puddles, to where we found two Boreal Owls.  It was a lifer for Maggie as well, as she had come up a year earlier and not seen one.  She had come specifically to study the Boreal Owls in the year that there were none.  Two of the Boreal Owls were caught in the mist-netting and Bruce and Maggie placed them in little cloth bags, after which we drove back to the little shack in the woods where they were banded and a few people, including me, got to hold one.

I was able to get a photo of one in a tree later on, and spend the rest of the night chatting with a few of the birders who had come to see the owls, one of which was an older gentleman who had also driven up from Toronto.  We swapped Alaska stories and I mentioned that next week I was going to the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival.  Maggie laughed and said she'd be there too.  We talked at length about birding in Louisiana and she promised to give me tips on where I can find more than just Rails, including a place where I might be able to see Whooping Cranes.

By 11:00 pm or so I was ready to hit the road and find a hotel for the night.  Bruce had tipped me to a place I might be able to find Three-toed Woodpeckers in the morning, in an area of burnt forest to the south.  I checked it out this morning but didn't find anything more than Field Sparrows and Red-breasted Nuthatches.  I still had hours to go before I was home and wanted to get back to Toronto by dinner time.

And now, those of you with sensitive constitutions might want to just skip ahead to the photographs below as I now wish to share some of the realities of long days of driving and not always eating a balanced diet.  Things happen.  Well, that's not exactly right.  Sh-- Happens, as they say.  And sometimes you have to go when you have to go.  And sometimes it's on the side of a dirt road, in a ditch, hiding behind the car, next to a farmer's field, with the wind blowing on and the cold rain pelting your bare bum.  I'm not proud of this.  But in the interests of full disclosure, so to speak, sometimes we just have to bare our souls for all to see, while hoping we didn't bare our buttocks for some poor farmer's family to see.

Boreal Owl: # 539

Whoooo Me?

Yes, Yooooo!