I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig (2)
Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER reduced w sig
Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison
Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blog v3
Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Adjusting the Focus

Blackpoll Warbler - Bayview Park - 2018 w sig
Blackpoll Warbler – Bayview Park, Toledo, Ohio

I’ve been doing so much birding this year that, to my surprise, I found myself quickly climbing the rankings in my county’s eBird list. I hadn’t set out to compete with everyone else, but when I saw my name hit the top of the list of “Top 100 Birders in Lucas County,” something clicked in my head. I began to feel pressure to keep my name from dropping back down the list. I noticed that on days I was ahead of everyone, I felt good. And when I was behind, I felt bad. I realized I wasn’t enjoying the birds as much because I was always thinking about which species I still needed to find, and where I had to go next to find them.

Osprey building nest at Howard Marsh
Osprey adding to their nest at Howard Marsh Metropark

I did, however, want to improve on my own number from last year, which was 201 species. So this year I wanted to get to 202 species in a single county, just to prove to myself that I could do it.

I was sitting on the beach at Magee Marsh the other day having lunch with a friend when we saw four American White Pelicans fly over us. That was species number 202 for 2018 for me! So, after savoring the achievement of beating my own record from last year, I decided to change my settings to hide my eBird reports  from the publicly-displayed rankings. I didn’t like feeling that I was competing with my friends. I admit I did take a screenshot showing my name at the top of the list, but that’s just so I’ll remember what this felt like.

Pelican in flight w sig
(I photographed this pelican in Texas back in January, not at Magee Marsh)

I don’t want to see birds as just items to be checked off my list. They’re beautiful and fascinating living creatures, and I want to admire and enjoy them. In the past couple of weeks I’ve spent time with several friends who are either new birders or are not at all involved in eBirding, and when I’m with them I notice that I see the birds differently. It’s a completely different experience in which I can almost recapture the feelings of wonder and discovery that I had when I was new to birding.

Song Sparrow singing on boardwalk at Howard Marsh w sig
Song Sparrow singing at Howard Marsh, our newest Toledo Metropark

Cornell’s eBird database is a wonderful source of records about bird sightings around the world, but I’m not fond of the fact that they encourage competition by displaying a constantly-updated list of our names and ranks. I understand that it helps them by getting more people out looking at birds and reporting them to eBird, but I’ve seen that ranking list have some negative effects among local birders. I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing anyone who truly enjoys the competitive aspect of that, but it’s just not for me, that’s all.

Besides, I feel it’s time for me to adjust my focus more toward the insect world for the rest of the spring and summer. Dragonflies and damselflies are showing up now, and I’m going on a butterfly walk next week as part of Blue Week festivities here in the Oak Openings region of Ohio. I had so much fun photographing insects last year, and I’m looking forward to much more of that in the coming months, especially as my native garden begins to take shape. Native plants bring more cool insects! 🙂

Fragile Forktail - Maumee Bay east end FOY
Fragile Forktail, Maumee Bay State Park, May 2018

 

I’m Exhausted and We’re Just Getting Started

Magnolia Warbler - Magee 2018 (2) w sig
Magnolia Warbler

Where to begin? Spring migration has been in progress for a while, but it got a slow start because we had persistent north winds that kept large numbers of birds stuck south of us. That finally changed early last week and we’ve seen an explosion of migrant songbirds in northwest Ohio.

My friends and I all agree that this is the best birding at Magee Marsh in recent memory. The birds are here in big numbers and they’re down low, giving us wonderful close views. And not only that, but we’ve had a bonanza of species that aren’t common here too, like the boldly-marked Kentucky and Hooded Warblers:

Hooded Warbler - Metzger 2018 (2) w sig
Hooded Warbler
Kentucky Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Kentucky Warbler

And the Cerulean Warblers put on quite the show one day, flying back and forth along the boardwalk before the big crowds arrived, allowing us some nice quality time with them. You should have heard the comments from birders as we were all trying to get the best angle for photos or views through the binoculars. “Holy crap! You’ll never get a view of that bird like this again!” or “Are you kidding me?! What a beautiful bird!” It was so much fun to see the birds and to be surrounded by other people who got just as much joy from them as I did.

Cerulean Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Cerulean Warbler

At one point during this bird explosion, just after my friend Julie had found this Cerulean, three of us took a selfie to commemorate the moment. We took a couple minutes to stand quietly together and talk about the joy of it all.

The only other time I’ve seen a Cerulean Warbler was in Michigan a few years ago, and it was 40 or 50 feet above me. This is me looking at my first Cerulean Warbler:

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Getting warbler neck from trying to see Ceruleans in Michigan a few years ago.

Standing beside me in this photo is Katie Fallon, author of Cerulean Blues, a book about the plight of this declining species.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Bay-breasted Warbler at Magee Marsh

I always get emotional when I watch warblers on their spring journey, and this year I’ve had some intensely moving experiences. One day I was birding with my friend Pattye at Magee Marsh. We’d been watching a Blue-winged Warbler foraging for insects among the freshly-emerged vegetation, when I suddenly noticed a second Blue-winged Warbler nearby. Blue-winged Warbler - Magee 2018

Seeing two of this species together was really special. And not only were they together, but I saw one of them feed the other one, probably a bit of pair-bonding activity between mates. I was trying to get a photo of them both together but only managed some blurry ones. But as we stood there watching this spectacle, we both just kept saying “Wow…just wow…!” You know the birding is really great when you run out of words to express your feelings.

Blackburnian Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Blackburnian Warbler (not the one from this story because he was too close for a photo!)

And just a short time later we were talking quietly at the edge of the boardwalk, looking down at the ground as we chatted. I raised my head at one point to see a Blackburnian Warbler about a foot away from my head. I whispered, “Pattye, look up, right in front of your face!” She raised her head and saw exactly what I was seeing, this tiny little orange ball of life, staring right at us as if he was as curious about us as we were about him. And I started crying from the intense joy I felt welling up in my heart. I think Pattye might have shed a few tears too.

I get a lot of satisfaction from watching birds all year long, but the phenomenon of the massive spring migration is overwhelming. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the special moments and birds I’ve seen this week, and I’ve had to force myself to take time off from the birds twice already, just to allow my body to process the intensity of these experiences.  There’s physical exhaustion from the long days of walking in the heat, but the emotional impact of seeing so many wonderful birds in such close proximity is just as tiring. I find that instead of feeling frustrated when a rainy day prevents birding, I’m actually grateful for a reason to rest at home.

I’m so thankful that I discovered birds —  the added dimension they bring to my life is almost indescribable.  There’s something spiritual about it — I think it’s because they remind me of my place in the universe. My human problems are put into perspective when I consider the lives of these tiny beautiful creatures. So, in a way, they help heal me when I find the human world overwhelming. And that, my friends, is the definition of nature therapy. 🙂

Red-eyed vireo - Magee 2018 w sig
Red-eyed Vireo (yep, it’s not just warblers we’re watching!)

My Personal Connection to an Ornithology Legend

What do birders do when it’s raining? Well, today I decided to bird indoors…at the art museum. In recent years, the Toledo Museum of Art has been featuring special bird exhibits every other spring, timed to align with the massive avian migration along the Lake Erie shore. This year’s exhibit is called “Before Audubon: Alexander Wilson’s Birds of the United States.” It showcases the work of Alexander Wilson, who produced his massive 9-volume work American Ornithology before John James Audubon published his better-known The Birds of America.

Before Audubon - Alexander Wilson exhibit - Brown Thrasher Volume 2

The image above shows pages from Volume 2 of the museum’s first edition of Wilson’s series, featuring the Brown Thrasher. I encourage you to enlarge the photo so you can read his text about this bird. And perhaps you’ll also be able to see that the eyes on the Bay-breasted Warbler and the Gray Catbird sparkle. As I looked through the glass case at this page, I first thought he’d placed gemstones as eyes, or maybe there’s glitter in the paint or something. I’m not sure how he did it, but those eyes seemed alive.

Wilson was born in Scotland and immigrated to America after being imprisoned briefly for writing poetry about poor conditions in the mill where he worked. He settled in Philadelphia and became a teacher. His neighbor William Bartram became his mentor as he studied birds and learned to draw them.

Of course some of my favorite images are of the woodpeckers. In the left image, he shows (clockwise from left) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. On the top of the second image he shows a Pileated Woodpecker (left) and the presumed-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Below their heads he shows them again, with a Red-headed Woodpecker for size comparison. With the exception of the Ivory-billed, all of these woodpeckers can be seen here in northwest Ohio.

I learned at this exhibit that it was because Wilson’s work had been so popular that Audubon was able to secure financing for his own work. I found this interesting commentary on one of the interpretive signs:

Wilson had helped to popularize ornitholology in America, and his approach had a strong impact in Europe, helping to renew the market for natural history studies. Consequently, Audubon was able to secure more funding than Wilson had ever enjoyed. The result was a luxury production, with plates printed and hand-colored on the largest paper available at the time (the double elephant folio) and each bird shown life size.

The scientific community in Philadelphia–the publishing capital of the U.S. at the time–remained loyal to Wilson, forcing the “upstart” Audubon to publish Birds of America in London.

Before Audubon - Alexander Wilson exhibit at TMA - about Wilson

I pulled out my copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America to compare to the images I’d just seen of Wilson’s birds, and I noticed a couple interesting things.

Audubon's Birds of America - from my copy - pileated woodpeckers
Pileated Woodpeckers by John James Audubon

First, Wilson’s birds are mostly shown without much surrounding habitat, and with multiple species combined in each image. Audubon’s birds, on the other hand, are usually shown as individual species in dramatic poses with detailed backgrounds of flowers and trees. And I’d never noticed before that the captions include the names of the flowers and trees in most cases. I’m so glad I discovered that.

The museum’s exhibit explained that, due to financial concerns, Wilson put more species in each image to save paper costs. Clearly Audubon had no such constraints.

Over the seven years Wilson worked to document birds, he traveled over 12,000 miles and had to overcome many difficulties. I went to Amazon and found a used copy of Alexander Wilson’s Life and Letters, and that tome is on its way to my eager little hands right now. I can’t wait to read about how he managed this groundbreaking accomplishment in the wilds of 18th and 19th century America.

Wilson's Warbler by Kevin Vance via Flickr Creative Commons license
Wilson’s Warbler courtesy of Kevin Vance, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Fittingly, there are five bird species named after Mr. Wilson today: warbler, snipe, storm-petrel, phalarope, and plover. I’ve seen some Wilson’s Snipe recently here in Ohio, and am expecting to find some Wilson’s Warblers in the next few weeks as migration ramps up. And when I do, I’ll take a moment to remember the passion of Alexander Wilson and be grateful for his contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of birds.

Alexander Wilson's tombstone in PhiladelphiaThe Toledo Museum of Art is a real jewel in this city. Admission is free for everyone, all the time. And it’s only a 15-minute drive from my house, so I can go often. Sometimes I just drop in for a brief visit to stand in front of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Reaper,” because…well, because I just feel a need to do that. I’m grateful for such easy access to beautiful works of art and for the exhibits that teach me something new on every visit. Even though admission is free, I pay for membership each year to show my support for this organization that does so much for the quality of life here.

Oh, my personal connection to this legend? Alexander Wilson and I were both born on July 6. I like knowing that.

Reflecting on Birds

I’ve amassed a small collection of bird photos showing their reflections in water, so I thought it would be nice to share them as I reflect a little bit on birds’ lives. Hope you enjoy this quick little item.

Black-necked stilt with reflection - copyright Kim Smith
Black-necked Stilt

Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend virtually every waking moment of your life either finding food, or trying to impress a potential mate, or hiding from other critters who want to eat you. I think of this often as I watch large numbers of birds arriving here in the spring, some of them just passing through and others who will stay and breed in this area. Regardless of whether they’re migrants or returning breeders, all of them are tired and very hungry. It’s a matter of life and death for them to find enough food to survive each day.

American Avocets at with reflections w sig
American Avocets (2×2=4)
Great Egret and reflection in water w sig
One of my first bird reflection shots, Great Egret
American Tree Sparrow and reflection in water w sig - Metzger Marsh
American Tree Sparrow and his winter reflection

And for many of them, this is a new place where they don’t know the special spots for the best food sources. So they’re in a strange place with thousands of others who are also hungry and tired. Competition for survival is fierce, and they get no vacation from it. I’ve never seen a bird take the weekend off to sit on the patio and drink iced tea, have you?

Watching birds in the winter is another time when I’m deeply moved by their lives. Among our resident birds, the struggle for food is more intense when most of the plants have gone dormant and insects have died or hibernated or migrated to warmer climates. And getting through the cold nights is a special kind of challenge when you can’t snuggle up under a warm blanket in front of a blazing fireplace.

We humans definitely have our own set of problems, but thinking about the difficult lives of wild animals helps put things in perspective a bit, doesn’t it?

 

 

 

Coot looking into water w reflection w sig
American Coot doing a bit of self-reflection

Rx: Go Birding, You Fool

Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.

Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.

I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.

Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.

(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)

I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?

Eastern Towhee male
Eastern Towhee male

Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.

Field Sparrow at Oak Openings w sig Kim Smith
Field Sparrow

Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.

Brown Thrasher at Magee w sig
Brown Thrasher

Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears.  Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:  (Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)

There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.

As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river.  And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce.  Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:

(Courtesy of Paul Marvin on Xeno-canto.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet for blog widget
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.

As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree.  The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.

brown-creeper-at-stony-creek-w-sig-4-17-14
Brown Creeper

And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level.  The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)

My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?

Part 3 – A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

This is the last in the three-part series about the Texas trip. It still amazes me when I think of how many great birds I saw in just three days of birding. This first bird is one I can see in Ohio during the breeding season, but I still got a big thrill out of seeing it on its wintering grounds down south. Meet Mr. Crazy Eyes, the White-eyed Vireo.

White-eyed Vireo - Santa Ana NWR w sig
White-eyed Vireo

This bird is mesmerizing and I just can’t get enough of it whenever I see one. And while I’m talking about familiar birds, take a look at this Orange-crowned Warbler eating…wait for it…an orange. I hope I’m not the only one that gets a little kick out of that.

Orange-crowned warbler eating an orange - w sig

Orange-crowned warbler better shot w sig
A better look at the Orange-crowned Warbler

I can see this warbler in Ohio during migration, but I got to see so many of them on this trip that I almost found myself saying, “Oh, just another Orange-crowned Warbler.” One day we visited a campsite at Falcon State Park where there were feeders set up, and there were more of this species there than anything else. It was crazy.

At the same feeding station I got my best looks ever at Northern Bobwhites. We were sitting in the car in a light rain, eating our lunch and watching to see what would show up at these feeders. The quail were feeding on the ground on Rick’s side of the car, and whenever I tried to get out to see them, they ran back into the shrubs. I eventually managed to get a photo by crawling on my hands and knees and hiding behind the car’s tires. Very much worth the pain of knees-on-asphalt!

Northern Bobwhite quail w sig

One day as we were walking along the banks of the Rio Grande I heard a very familiar sound and reflexively said, “Downy Woodpecker.” But they don’t get Downies down in the valley. 🙂 As it turns out, it was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, which looks and sounds very much like the Downy, a bird I’m used to seeing here in Ohio. Their call note is often compared to that of a dog’s squeaky toy.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker cropped v2 w sig
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

And another woodpecker that is very similar to one of my local birds was this Golden-fronted. This species is what I think of as the western cousin to our Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker w sig
Golden-fronted Woodpecker

 

This woodpecker was at a birding hotspot at Salineño, on land owned by Valley Land Fund, an organization that protects wildlife habitat in the Rio Grande Valley. On this property there’s a large feeding station maintained by volunteers, and they even provide comfy lawn chairs so you can stay a while. Their guest registry consists of two bulging three-ring notebooks, and I was able to look back and see where I’d signed it on my first visit in 2014.

My previous visit was during a heavy rainfall, and I was huddled under the trailer awning behind a crowd of other people, and wasn’t able to see much. This time was much easier. I saw two species of orioles, the Audubon’s and the Altamira.

Audubon's Oriole w sig
Audubon’s Oriole

 

Altamira Oriole w sig copyright Kim Smith
Altamira Oriole

This location was loaded with Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, various blackbirds, and plenty of other interesting species. I’m really glad we made the 90-minute drive from McAllen to this spot.

The only bird I didn’t see on this visit that I’d really hoped for was the roadrunner. But I’m not disappointed. It just gives me a reason to come back to Texas next winter and try again. During a time when things here in Ohio are pretty bleak, this trip was excellent nature therapy!

Black-necked stilt with reflection - copyright Kim Smith
Black-necked Stilt in a roadside pond