Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Nov 12 2014

Check Every Vulture

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Zone-taile Hawk illustration from the Crossley ID Guide Raptors via Wikimedia Commons

Last week at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival I wanted to see a zone-tailed hawk but the only way to do it was to check every vulture.

The relationship between zone-tailed hawks and turkey vultures goes way back.  Both are South and Central American birds who’ve hung out together for longer than we can imagine — so much so that the hawks now resemble the vultures.  Turkey vultures moved into North America but the hawks didn’t commit that far, only coming to Arizona, New Mexico and southern Texas in the summer.

Zone-tailed hawks (Buteo albonotatus) like to soar with turkey vultures and they easily blend in.  The hawks are slightly smaller, have the same bi-color underwings (dark leading edge and pale trailing edge), and soar with their wings set in a dihedral.

Where I come from a dark, soaring V means vulture so I wouldn’t give those birds a second thought, but look at the three birds soaring at the top left of Crossley’s illustration.  One of them isn’t a turkey vulture.  Can you tell which one?

Our trip leader, Bill Clark, told us how to find a zone-tailed “needle” in the turkey vulture “haystack.” Check each bird’s head and feet.

Turkey vultures have tiny, bald, reddish heads.  Zone-tailed hawks have dark, feathered, hawk-sized heads.  Turkey vultures have drab legs and feet.  Zone-tailed hawks have bright yellow legs and feet.  Turkey vultures have plain tails.  Zone-tailed hawks are named for the white “zone” band on their black tails.

Fortunately my “Life Bird” zone-tailed hawk flew quite close.  I saw his dark head, his yellow legs and feet, and the white zone on his tail.  Woo hoo!

Now that I’m back in Pittsburgh it’s a relief that I don’t have to check every vulture.  ;)

 

(illustration from The Crossley ID Guide Raptors via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 10 2014

Flame-chested Crooked Beak

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Pyrrhuloxia in Arizona (photo by SearchNetMedia on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To a Pennsylvania birder (me) this looks like an odd female cardinal but it’s actually a male pyrrhuloxia.

Pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) are closely related to northern cardinals and their ranges overlap in the southwestern U.S.  The pyrrhuloxias take the driest habitats, the cardinals take the wet ones.  If you live in southern Arizona or south Texas you may have both at your feeders.

How do you tell the difference at a glance?  Look at the beak.  Pyrrhuloxias have short, stubby, yellow beaks with a smaller and curved upper mandible.  Adult northern cardinals have bright red-orange beaks while immatures have dull brown-red.

The beak accounts for part of the pyrrhuloxia’s name.  Birds of North America Online explains that “Pyrrhu” comes from Pyrrhula, the genus for bullfinches meaning flame-colored or red. Loxia is the genus name for crossbills and means crooked.

Its a desert cardinal with a flame-colored chest and a crooked beak.

 

(photo taken in Tuscon, Arizona by SearchNetMedia via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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Nov 08 2014

He Also Says His Name

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Great Kiskadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every South Texas bird I’ve mentioned this week has a name that describes his song.

The green jay has onomatopoeic Spanish names, the chachalaca calls “cha-cha-lac,” and the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), above, is easy to find because he always says his name.

Click here to hear.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 07 2014

Cha Cha Lac!

Watch the video and you’ll hear this bird say his name.

The plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is the same size and shape as a female ring-necked pheasant but unlike the pheasant it lives in forests and scrublands from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Costa Rica.

The chachalaca’s call has been described as “loud and simply indescribable,” deafening, ear-splitting, and “ranking with the call of the howler monkey” for shear loudness. (*Descriptions are from this link at Birds of North American Online)

The video shows only one bird calling so you might wonder, “What’s the big deal?”  To really understand the sound click here to hear a flock calling just after sunrise in Starr County, Texas.

At the beginning of the recording you’ll hear high falsetto calls. The females and immature males have high voices while adult males have deep ones because their tracheas are more than twice as long and wider in diameter.  Young males, like human teenagers, have to wait for their voices to change.

Chachalaca’s do their loudest whooping in the spring, so I won’t have to cover my ears when I encounter this bird … But I may have to wait for the rain to stop before he puts in an appearance. (It’s been raining in South Texas for 3 days!)

Cha-cha-lac!

 

(video posted by Robert Straub on YouTube)

 

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Nov 06 2014

Introduce Me

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Aplomado falcon, Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They’re as long as a peregrine but only half their weight.  They fly like accipiters or even nighthawks.  They hunt cooperatively and can use motorcycles to flush prey.

Aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis) used to nest in savannas, grasslands and shrub-steppe from Arizona to the lower Rio Grande Valley but they disappeared from the U.S. in 1952 due to habitat loss and DDT.  They were listed as endangered in 1986.

In 1987 The Peregrine Fund established an aplomado reintroduction program similar to the captive breeding program that restored the peregrine.  Since the 1990’s they’ve hacked 1,500 aplomado chicks in South Texas but restoration has been slow and difficult because the young birds face so many dangers in the wild. 

The aplomado is still on the Endangered Species list but now breeds again in South Texas. To help the young survive The Peregrine Fund provides special nesting boxes which the adults prefer because the boxes protect their chicks.

Thanks to the reintroduction program I now have the chance to see an aplomado falcon at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

He’s my goal this week.  Introduce me!

 

(photo by Elaine R. Wilson from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I saw one today, 11/6/2014. Yay!

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Nov 05 2014

Bad Tempered?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Green jay, Cyanocorax yncas, Venezuela (photo by Dilankf from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen a green jay?  I haven’t yet, but I’ve haven’t been in his native range until today.

While my husband holds the fort at home I’ve flown to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas, just inside the northern edge of the green jay’s range. I hope I see this Life Bird.  He’s common in Central and South America but you have to be in this corner of Texas to see him in the U.S.

In Texas Cyanocorax yncas is called a green jay but many jays are green in Central and South America so elsewhere he’s called an Inca jay, Querrequerre, Quinquín, Querqués or Carriqui.

The bird in the photo above is a “querrequerre” from Venezuela.  His South American population is separated from the Central American group by 900 miles so a querrequerre looks slightly different and uses different habitats than the green jay of Texas.  He’s larger, has a crest, and lives in humid forests instead of mesquite thickets and open woodland as they do in Texas.

He also has an attitude that’s given his onomatopoeic Spanish name an additional meaning.  In Venezuela querrequerre is slang for a grumpy person with a bad temper who’s easily upset and angered.

An article by Eduardo Lopez for Audubon of Venezuela explains how the jay got this bad name.  As an example, he tells the story of a ranger at El Ávila National Park who tried to rescue a trapped querrequerre and was attacked by the querrequerre’s family.  The birds drew blood!   Obviously it was a big misunderstanding but the ranger swore he would never help those jays again.  (If you can’t read Spanish, use Goggle Chrome or Google Translate when you click on this link to Lopez’ article.)

Do green jays in Texas have bad tempers?

I hope to find out in the next five days.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken in Warairarepano National Park, Caracas, Venezuela.  Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s.  Some day the South American Cyanocorax yncas may be called a separate species.

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Feb 17 2014

Intrepid Minnesotan

Gray jay in Minnesota (photo by Jessica Botzan)

I’m back in the ‘Burgh with a fond look back at my time in Minnesota at the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival.

Though I never found a great gray owl I saw seven Life Birds(*) and learned a lot about cold and snow.

Cold… was not a problem.  I didn’t have to cope with the worst of this winter in Minnesota but -13F was a typical morning in the bog.  Three to four layers of clothes are indispensable. Toe warmer heat packets inside Sorel boots are the key to warm feet.  I was never cold.

Snow… is a way of life.  If you’re afraid to drive in snow in Minnesota you’re homebound for half the year.  So you just do it.

Minnesota snowplows are awesome, huge, coordinated.  I arrived during a Winter Weather Advisory (4”-6”) and left during a Winter Storm Warning (5”-7”).  No problem.  All the roads and parking lots were plowed, not to bare pavement but quite passable.  The Duluth airport was plowed down to bare pavement.  My flight home was delayed only by de-icing.  Check out this video of clearing the runway.

Birds … are intrepid in Minnesota’s winters.  The easiest to find are ravens and black-capped chickadees.  The rarest are Carolina wrens and robins.  The gray jay is the cutest and the most intrepid.

Gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis) look like oversized chickadees but have the typical corvid attitude.  They’re bold and curious and willing to eat anything including berries, insects, fungi, other species’ nestlings and small mammals.

Jess Botzan saw this one at Sax Zim Bog during the coldest of the cold weather last month and the bird wasn’t phased by it. Gray jays are so intrepid that they lay eggs in March while temperatures are still below freezing and snow is on the ground.  They don’t even bother to nest again in May and June when the weather is easy.

Like everyone else in Minnesota, the gray jay is intrepid in snow and cold.

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

(*) Life Birds seen:  Pine grosbeak, black-billed magpie, boreal chickadee, gray jay, northern hawk owl, black-backed woodpecker, Bohemian waxwing.

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Feb 17 2014

I Climbed Lake Superior

Published by under Travel,Weather & Sky

Walking on Lake Superior, 16 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday’s Sax-Zim-Festival field trip to Duluth held an unexpected surprise.  Every year the birding trip stops at Stoney Point to observe gulls and waterfowl in the open water on Lake Superior.  But there is no open water.  The lake is 95% frozen.  Locals say this hasn’t happened for 20 years.

In the absence of birds we walked down to the lake, and then on it — a moonscape experience.

The inshore ice was flat and walkable but the pressure of offshore ice and wind had left a landscape of broken plates stacked in piles and covered in snow.

Ice chards at Lake Superior (photo by Kate St. John)

Each piece was thick and clear like a pane of glass.
Man holding ice chard from Lake Superior (photo by Kate St. John)

Fifty yards out the pressure was orogenic, so strong that it created a mountain ridge of bluish, broken ice more than 15 feet tall, so high we couldn’t see the lake beyond it.

Blue ice on Lake Superior, 16 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

In this video from my cell phone you can see how big and strange it is.

 

Inevitably, the ice mountain posed an irresistible challenge.  Two guys climbed it.  Eventually I climbed too.  Going up was like climbing a hill of shale but coming down was a butt-slide in an ice cube tray.

So now I have three “Life Lake” experiences:  I saw Lake Superior for the first time, I walked on it, and then I climbed it.

 

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

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Aug 03 2013

Visiting Shorebirds

Marbled godwit at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio (photo by Steve Gosser)

Shorebirds are migrating but we’re not likely to see them in Pittsburgh because we don’t have a shore. However there’s an excellent place north of us that does:  the harbor at Conneaut, Ohio.

Conneaut’s harbor was formed where Conneaut Creek flows into Lake Erie.  The lake’s waves can be rough so the harbor has been sheltered by two breakwaters.  These allowed the creek (and probably the harbor dredge) to deposit a sand spit and mud flat so extensive you can park on it.

Visiting shorebirds feed at the water’s edge and rest on the sand.  Sometimes they’re so close you have to back up to see them with binoculars!

The harbor is more than two hours away but the trip is well worth it.  Steve Gosser photographed this marbled godwit there in July.

Click here for a map and the harbor’s eBird checklist.  The best place is called the “sand spit” on the map.

More shorebirds coming.  Visit them at Conneaut.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Mar 12 2013

The Importance Of Fire

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in California, Oct 2007 (photo by FEMA via Wikimedia Commons)

Early this month it was scary to read Chuck Tague’s account of a brush fire that came within two miles of his Ormond Beach home.

While the fired burned in Florida I was in another fire-prone place, San Diego, listening to a speech by Dr. John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in which he touched on how important fire is for scrub habitats and for the survival of the Florida scrub-jay in particular.

To most of us wildfire is rare but it’s a natural cycle in scrub communities where plants, animals, and birds rely on its regular occurrence.   “Regular” is important.  If fire happens too often or too infrequently that’s bad too.

It has taken a while to learn this.  Dr. Fitzpatrick described how they studied fire and birds at Archbold Station in Highlands County, Florida.  For two decades Archbold suppressed fires and watched the scrub-jay population surge then dangerously decline.  After 20 years scientists burned small tracts and watched the scrub-jays surge again.  They learned that the Florida scrub-jay’s optimal habitat is at 5-15 years after a fire.  At 15 years the scrub gets too tall, the jay’s predators increase and the birds decline.

Fire is necessary.  The trick in populated areas is to manage it so it happens only when and where it’s needed.

In San Diego the local government conducts brush management programs to protect homes and businesses.  According to San Diego Audubon, these programs sometimes make matters worse.  If workers clear away native chaparral, it not only destroys endangered bird habitat but results in fire-prone grassy weeds that burn more easily. Proper management of native habitat actually lowers the risk of explosive fire.

So though we fear it, fire is important.  Without it we wouldn’t have Florida scrub-jays, California gnatcatchers and coastal cactus wrens, to name a few.

(photo of a helicopter dropping water on a California wildfire, by FEMA via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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