Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Feb 16 2012

Best Birds

Published by under Travel

Last April I wrote about the Best Birds on my trip to Nevada.  Now I’m back from Florida and happy to report many Best Birds there too.

  • Most beautiful: Painted buntings at Merritt Island Visitor Center.  Last Sunday it was very cold and windy so three male painted buntings stayed close to the feeders. Their blue, red and green colors (shown above) glowed in the nearby bushes.
  • Best raptor was a peregrine falcon at Daytona Beach Shores who hazed the gulls loafing on the sand, then flew to the tallest building to wait and watch for another opportunity.  By focusing on the peregrine I missed seeing the jaegers.   Oh well.
  • Most amazing flock:  The 30+ American white pelicans who herded fish at Merritt Island.  They swam in tight formation stirring the water with their feet, drove the fish ahead of them, and gulped them up.  Overhead a flock of gulls kited in the wind, hoping for an easy catch. From a distance the gulls looked like flags waving above a grandstand.
  • Crowd Pleaser:  Without a doubt the vermilion flycatcher at Orlando Wetlands Park was a crowd pleaser.  It was a life bird for me in Nevada last year but this time I had a much better look at it.  What a cooperative bird!  Like all flycatchers he perched on a branch, made forays to catch bugs, and often returned to the same branch.  Everyone on the Halifax River Audubon outing got good looks at him.

Thanks to Chuck and Joan Tague for showing me so many wonderful birds!

(…and thanks to Chuck Tague for these photos)

4 responses so far

Sep 03 2011

Gone Hiking…

Published by under Hiking,Travel

… on my favorite trails at Acadia National Park in Maine.

This is the view from the top of Cadillac Mountain, 1,530 feet above sea level.

It’s an easy (long) climb from north or south but there’s an ice cream reward at the summit shop.

How civilized!

(photo by Ralph Roach  from Shutterstock)

8 responses so far

Apr 15 2011

Also seen in Nevada

On my last day in Nevada, I encountered this critter slithering across the trail while I walked the dikes at Henderson Bird Preserve.  He was brown and gold and five feet long!

From a distance he didn’t look like a rattlesnake, but I carefully examined his head and tail.  (Binoculars are so useful!)  No rattles, no diamond-shaped head.  I felt fairly sure he wasn’t venomous so I got a little closer than this to take his picture.

Later I showed my cellphone photo to a Bird Preserve volunteer who told me he’s a gopher snake.  The snake wouldn’t hurt me as long as I didn’t mess with him.

No chance of that!

Click here for a close-up of a gopher snake.

(photo by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Apr 14 2011

Best Bird

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Travel

Fifteen years ago I learned about Best Bird from Chuck Tague when I took his Spring Warblers class at Presque Isle State Park.

As the class wrapped up two intensive days of birding Chuck asked each of us, “What was your best bird?”  Mine was a least bittern, a life bird(*) who flushed from the reeds when I stepped alone to the edge of the marsh.

Best Bird is now a tradition with me.  At the end of every outing I think back on the birds I’ve seen and their behavior.  Who was most beautiful?  Who did the most interesting thing?  Which bird took my breath away?  I enjoy thinking back on the birds that made the outing worthwhile.

My trip to Nevada was so full birds that it’s hard to pick the best.  I saw 127 species, nine life birds and thousands of individuals.  Rather than pick a single Best Bird, here are some of the many “bests” of my trip:

  • On my first day, in my first hour of birding I saw a peregrine falcon hunting the ducks at Henderson Bird Preserve.
  • There were two beautiful “gray ghost” northern harriers at Duck Creek Wetlands last Saturday.  I was glad to be watching them in 75 degree weather on the east side of the valley.  Through my binoculars I could see it snowing in the west.
  • At Corn Creek I saw a Swainson’s hawk (another life bird) when a raven hassled it until it flew away.
  • Most unusual was a group of great blue herons and great egrets roosting on an unfinished roof near Floyd Lamb Park.  The home’s roof was tar papered and stacked with ceramic tiles, waiting for the roofers to begin.  The herons and egrets perched among the tiles.  I would never have seen them but one of the herons perched on the crest and I saw his silhouette.
  • On Sunday at Corn Creek there were phainopeplas perched on every available high spot.  They like the place because there is so much desert mistletoe there.
  • Thanks to a helpful local birder, I saw a vermilion flycatcher for the first time in my life.  It was at Corn Creek, a beautiful male bird like the one pictured above.  There was even a Pittsburgh connection: the birder who showed me the vermilion flycatcher grew up in McKees Rocks.
  • Amazingly, I saw more ravens than crows.  Crows are uncommon in the desert.

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

(*) A life bird is a species seen for the first time in my life.

9 responses so far

Sep 16 2010

Bruce, The Fabulous

This is a Life Bird, the first spruce grouse I’ve ever seen.  The fact that I saw him and even have his picture is thanks to Naomi and Jim Honeth of Portland, Maine.

Now you may wonder, how did I manage to vacation in Maine for 27 years and never see a spruce grouse?  Well, I’m from Pennsylvania and I wasn’t thinking.  I assumed spruce grouse behaved like Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse, which hides in the oak forest until the last minute and bursts skyward in an explosion of sound and feathers.  Silly me.  I would never have found a spruce grouse without a guide.

I first met Jim and Naomi on September 7 on Campobello Island as we watched birds, whales and seals in the turbulent water where Passamaquoddy meets the Bay of Fundy.  We were pleased to see so many sea birds from land: greater and sooty shearwaters, phalaropes, razorbills and murres.  The next day it was foggy and by afternoon I was casting about for a place to find birds when I saw the Honeths in South Lubec.  We compared notes on what we’d seen, then Naomi said, “Do you want to see a spruce grouse?”  You bet!

We drove to Boot Cove Reserve.  Jim brought his camera and Naomi led the way down the narrow path in the mossy forest.  She whispered instructions on where to look and told me the male spruce grouse at this location was nicknamed “Spruce Bruce.”  I wondered why.  My Gore-tex pants made swishing sounds.  I was afraid we’d scare off the grouse. 

At the Bog Path junction we stopped to discuss what trail to take.  By this point the Honeths had expected to see the grouse and were worried he wouldn’t appear.  Naomi said, “He is usually more cooperative.”  I wondered what “cooperative” meant in terms of a grouse.

While we chatted we heard the whir of wings.  Jim was behind us and called, “There he is!”

The male spruce grouse landed on the path and walked toward us.  He stopped and stared.  Several times he flew to a tree branch, then back to the ground.  He decided to convince us that he owned the forest so he paused on the path, raised his bright red eyebrows, fanned his tail, puffed his chest and opened his wings. Wow!  He was so close I could see the dark brown iris of his eyes.  No wonder he has a name!

Eventually Bruce flew into the woods and we resumed our hike but soon had to stop because his lady (Betty?) was standing on the path in front of us.  She was a little shy but posed long enough for Jim to take her picture.

What cooperative birds!  Yes, spruce grouse are tame compared to ruffed grouse. 

Thanks to the Honeths I got to see the fabulous Spruce Bruce and his lady.  Click here to see Jim’s pictures of them.  (“Betty” is the brownish bird in the tree.)

(photo by Jim Honeth)

3 responses so far

Sep 09 2010

Bird with a Headlamp

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Plovers are one of my favorite shorebirds, partly because they’re easier to identify than peeps. 

This one is a semipalmated plover, distinguished by his single black belly band and black and white forehead.  Bobby Greene snapped this photo just as the bird was taking a step so you can even see the semi-palms between his toes that give him his name.

To me this plover is “The Bird with the Headlamp.”

Can you guess why?

(photo by Bobby Greene)

One response so far

Sep 08 2010

Maine coast birds in fog

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Not many shorebirds at South Lubec yesterday, which was disappointing for my shorebird study, but I went to Campobello Island (New Brunswick) and saw whales, seals and ocean birds very close to shore at East Quoddy Head Lighthouse.  There were black-legged kittiwakes, razorbills, common murres, red-necked phalaropes just off shore.

Today is very foggy with intermittent rain but I went to the sandbar anyway and found many more shorebirds — black-bellied plovers, semipalmated plovers and sandpipers, least sandpipers, sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers, red knots, whimbrel — plus a life bird Hudsonian godwit!  

To top it off a merlin cruised by to find his breakfast, though I didn’t see him catch anything. 

It will be hard to beat those two sightings in the rest of the day.

UPDATE at 5:00pm.  I did beat those two sightings.  I saw another Life Bird: spruce grouse!  Thanks to Jim and Naomi Honeth for showing me the trail at Boot Cove where the spruce grouse lives.

(photo of a merlin by Chuck Tague)

3 responses so far

Sep 08 2010

Peeps Say Peep

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Today is the last day of my shorebird self-study project in Lubec, Maine.  I’ve learned a thing or two by watching large flocks of the tiny sandpipers called “peeps” but I don’t know if I’ll retain anything because I have so little opportunity to see shorebirds at home. 

Maybe it’ll help to write it down, so here goes.

  • The advice offered by the field guides and those in the know really works:  At first glance, forget about plumage.  Focus on the legs and bill.  What color and length are the legs?  What color, size and shape is the bill?  Amazingly the bills on semipalmated sandpipers, like the one shown above, really do look blunt compared to the bills on least sandpipers.
  • Know where you are and what time of year it is.  This sounds obvious but it has helped to know that in Lubec I’m unlikely to see a western sandpiper at any time of year.  The downside is that if there’s a western sandpiper out here, I won’t figure it out.
  • In a flock of peeps during fall migration the sanderlings really stand out.  They are larger and whiter, feed with their bodies at a different angle than the others, and are – unbelievably – slower-moving than peeps.
  • Some peeps can be surprisingly aggressive considering they hang out in flocks.  I’ve seen peeps head-butt a sanderling when it didn’t move away fast enough.  Sometimes the smaller bird takes a running start and bashes into the sanderling.  The sanderling reacts slowly, looks up and steps back.  Huh?
  • And finally, peeps really do say “peep.”  

(photo by Bobby Greene)

One response so far

Sep 06 2010


Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

It may be too late in the season to see a willet at the Bay of Fundy but I will try.

Today I’m beginning an intensive three days of watching shorebirds — and I mean watching.  My plan is to follow them no matter what they do:  feeding, walking, flying, flocking, calling.  I won’t have an expert with me but I hope that by the end of three days I’ll be better at identifying them by their general look and behavior — and that’s bound to help.

One such bird that I’ve almost mastered is the willet.  Many’s the time I’ve carefully stalked these plain, long-legged, long-billed birds as they feed at the shore.  I try hard not to spook them while I figure out their field marks. 

I’ve been known to watch them with their wings closed for as much as half an hour.  Then I’m saved when a predator flies over.  The willets open their wings to escape and Wow!  No doubt about them!  Look at that distinctive wing pattern! 

I should learn from this that some birds can only be identified when they fly. 

Theoretically I could learn to recognize willets by their voices but that requires more time than I have this week, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever hear their territorial song in September.  It’s the sound that gave them their name:  “Pill-will-willet.”

(photo by Steve Gosser)

One response so far

Sep 05 2010

Where the Peregrines Nest

Published by under Peregrines,Travel

When we watch peregrine falcons nesting on camera in urban settings or visit them at bridges we often forget that they nest in wild places. 

Here’s a wild place where peregrines nest every year:  Champlain Mountain at Acadia National Park

Champlain is a 1,058-foot granite mountain that overlooks Frenchman’s Bay.  The side shown here is the “easy” slope but I can tell you from climbing it that even this side is steep.  It’s a staircase to heaven.

The other side, where the peregrines nest, is a sheer cliff with a trail too steep for anyone afraid of heights.  (I am!)  That trail is called The Precipice and it’s closed during nesting season. 

Cliff nests, though in beautiful settings, are generally not as successful as those on tall buildings.  In the past decade there have been as many as four peregrine nests at Acadia but all four failed one spring due to bad weather.

This year there were only two nests, one at the Precipice, the other at Beech Cliffs.  Beech fledged four young in June but for weeks it looked like the Precipice nest would fail. The pair picked a likely nest site but abandoned it when they should have been incubating. 

The Precipice peregrines remained on territory but continued to puzzle everyone until late June when observers heard a nestling begging.  In July this pair fledged one young female.  And now the trail is again open for climbing.

For photos of Acadia’s peregrines (including two pictures of Ranger Lora Haller, formerly of Pittsburgh), click here.

(photo of Champlain Mountain by Moses Martin)

4 responses so far

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