Dork Alert – Galápagos, Part 4

Maybe I should have titled this, “Birder True Confessions,” because I’m going to admit to some embarrassing things that happened on this trip. The first is that I sometimes get excited about birds that other people don’t. I wrote about one such occasion from my trip to Texas last winter, when my friend Rick was trying to show me a ringed kingfisher and I was more excited about a bunch of pelicans.

When I learned that I would have a chance to see flamingos in the Galápagos, I was really stoked. I bet most of my Ohio birder friends have seen flamingos already, but I hadn’t. This is because I’ve never been to Florida, believe it or not. Well, okay, I went to Ft. Lauderdale on spring break during college, but birds weren’t on my radar back then. And I’ve not been back to the Sunshine State since then, mostly because I’m afraid of birding where there are alligators. I know it’s an irrational fear, but what can I say? I imagine myself being distracted looking up at birds, and walking right into an alligator lurking in the vegetation along a trail. Don’t laugh, it could happen. But I hope to overcome that fear at some point and go birding down south.

So anyway, when the day finally came that we would have a chance to see flamingos, I was ready. I wore my flamingo t-shirt, the one I rarely wear at home because it seems so tacky. I don’t even know why I bought this shirt in the first place because it seems like something you’d get in a souvenir shop at the beach. But I had it, and I packed it for this trip, just for this day.  And I’m so glad I did, because that’s the reason I can show you this picture:

Kim's lifer flamingos in the Galapagos - Dork Alert

It seems I have no shame, sigh. But boy, oh boy, was I happy to see those statuesque pink birds! I was soaked in sweat and physically quite uncomfortable, but you can’t tell that from this photo.

Flamingo Collage w sig

It would have been awesome to find a huge flock of these elegant-yet-comical birds, but I was still thrilled about finding eight of them in a small pond. It was tempting to play with the color saturation when I edited these photos, so I made this collage with the original photo in the middle, bookended between lower-saturation and higher-saturation versions. I like it.

Marine iguana on rocks w sig
Marine iguanas were plentiful along the rocky shore, and swimming with the snorkelers

Another funny story involved my first attempt at snorkeling. If you’ll recall from my pre-trip post, I was so excited about it — I was going to swim with sea lions and iguanas, right? Well, as it turned out…not so much.  I went through the cumbersome and chaotic every-woman-for-herself process of getting fitted for all the snorkel gear on the first day we were on the ship: fins, wetsuit, and mask. On the second day, we were given our first opportunity to go snorkeling. We loaded all the gear into zodiacs and were dropped off on a beautiful red-sand beach. I asked the guide if he would be able to help me get started since it was going to be my first time. He said, “Of course!”

Snorkelers off Rabida island
My fellow travelers went snorkeling without me! (Note the pelican on the rocks.)

Well, he may have had every intention of helping me, but what actually happened was that people spread out all across the beach and the guides weren’t really anywhere near me when I went in the water. I managed to get my flippers on, and then put my mask on, and then turn myself over and put my face in the water. But within two seconds a wave hit me and my mask filled with water and I was up again. And I found out just then that I probably should have realized that I needed to make sure my mask was a tight fit on my face — which it clearly wasn’t.

I stood in the shallow water contemplating my next move: would I try to get the attention of one of the guides, or would I try again on my own? Just then I noticed an American oystercatcher running along the beach, and I knew what I was going to do. I was going to throw off those stupid flippers and take photos of this awesome bird! I had only seen my first oystercatcher the day before — life bird! — so I was still pretty geeked at seeing another one, especially at such close range.

American Oystercatcher with sea urchin for blog
American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) & pencil sea urchin (Eucidaris thouarsii, perhaps)

This one was first racing the waves in and out of a small cave, but it eventually came out and walked up on the rocks, where it found a dried-up sea urchin to investigate. I watched it poking into the sea urchin, apparently finding some tasty morsels still tucked inside.

Check out this video of him:

 

Kim taking pics of oystercatcher on beach
One of the guides was taking pics of me as I was shooting the oystercatcher!

So even though my attempt at snorkeling was an epic fail, all was not lost because I got to spend some quality time with a very special bird!

I think this may be my last post in the Galápagos series, at least for a while. Spring has sprung in Ohio, and I’ll be busy exploring the natural world closer to home for a few months. It’s finally dragonfly season! The first migratory green darners showed up here in Toledo a few days ago, and other non-migratory species will be crawling out of various bodies of water to emerge as winged insects in the coming weeks.  I can’t wait!

Galapagos sea lion sleeping on rocks
Yep, it’s time to take a break from talking about the Galápagos!

 

Part 2 – A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

This is a continuation of my previous post about winter birding in Texas. As I try to edit photos to show you, I realize that I saw such an abundance of great birds on this trip that I might have to do three posts instead of the planned two.

I’ll begin this time with a focus on waterfowl. At home here on the shores of Lake Erie, it’s often difficult to get good close looks at ducks and shorebirds. But there were a couple places in Texas where I was able to get good views of a large variety of species. Some of them were species that I can find in Ohio, but others were new to me.

One of the new species was this Cinnamon Teal, a gorgeous little duck that usually stays in the western part of this country. The last time these showed up in Ohio was in 2010, according to eBird. I’ve seen both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal here at home, so it was a real treat to see their spicy western cousin. (Get it? Because cinnamon is a spice…haha.) This shows a male Cinnamon Teal with (I think) two females.

Cinnamon Teal - Estero Llano Grande w sig
Cinnamon Teal at Estero Llano Grande

This Green-winged Teal was quite cooperative, and this is probably one of my best shots of this species so far.

Green-winged Teal w sig - Estero Llano Grande
Green-winged Teal at Estero Llano Grande

The Blue-winged Teal wasn’t quite as eager to pose for a photo, but I got this guy before he got away from me.

Blue-winged teal w sig
Blue-winged Teal

How’s that for a teal trifecta?

And even though American Coots are very common back here in Ohio, I was happy to see them in Texas as well. Although coots are often found with ducks, they’re more closely related to Sandhill Cranes than to ducks. So they’re not ducks, they’re…well…they’re just coots, I guess.

Coot with reflection v1 w sig
American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
Coot looking into water w reflection w sig
American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve seen rafts of thousands of coots before, and in that situation it’s easy to see them as one big unit without details. But when you pay attention to individuals you’ll see that these are beautiful birds. Rich black plumage with a white bill and a pretty red patch on the forehead. And don’t forget that stunning red eye. The other really cool part of this bird is below the water…it’s got big goofy feet that always make me laugh. (That link takes you to a google image search for “coot feet.”)

Ibises are another type of bird I’ve not seen much of before, so I was excited to find two species on this trip. I got a distant view of a few White Ibises at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and wasn’t able to get a very good photo. This was the best I could do, and I had to use my amateurish Photoshop skills to erase some vegetation from the face on this bird. That’s why I’ve reduced the size of this one, so you (hopefully) can’t see the sloppy edits I made. I really need to get better at that.

White Ibis cropped and blurry - Santa Ana NWR
White Ibis at Santa Ana NWR

While watching these ibises out in the marsh, I saw them fighting each other over tasty morsels, a behavior that is typical of this species.

At Estero Llano Grande I got a closer view of another species — this juvenile White-faced Ibis. My attention was so focused on that long down-curved bill that I didn’t even notice how beautiful the feathers were on this bird. Only when Rick (Snider) mentioned it did I start to really pay attention to the rest of the bird. (Rick is the Park Host at Estero, and so I was birding with two Ricks on this day, both of them expert naturalists. How much luckier could a girl get?) I see raspberry, green, and gold in this bird’s feathers…just stunning!

White-faced Ibis - Estero Llano Grande w sig
White-faced Ibis, juvenile

I learned something interesting as we watched the waterfowl at Santa Ana NWR one day. I’d just seen my lifer Least Grebes, and was enjoying trying to find more of them among the marsh vegetation. There were lots of Northern Pintail ducks in there too, and I started to notice that each pintail was closely followed by a grebe.

Northern pintail and Least grebe partnership w sig

I was told that the grebes are taking advantage of food that is stirred up by the feeding behavior of the pintails. These ducks are dabblers, which means that they feed by dabbling at the surface or by dunking their heads under the water, as in this photo.

Least Grebe and Pintail partnership v2 w sig
Pintail with head under water, grebe watching for an easy meal

Grebes are perfectly capable of going under the water to find their own food, but they’re clearly smart enough to figure out how to get ducks to do the work for them sometimes.

And in writing about this, I learned a new word. My first thought was to say that this was a symbiotic relationship, but I wanted to be more specific, so I did a quick bit of research. It turns out that there are several types of symbiotic relationships, depending on whether one or both of the animals are helped or harmed by the behavior. If they were both benefiting from it, we would call it mutualism. But in this case, while the grebe is clearly the beneficiary of the duck’s behavior, the duck isn’t receiving any benefit (that I’m aware of) from the grebe’s behavior. So that would be called commensalism. I love learning stuff like that!

Well, I think that’s a good thought to leave you with today.  I’ll probably finish this series with some songbirds next time.  I hope you’re enjoying these images and little stories from the trip. I think I’m drawing it out as long as possible because it helps me forget that I’m back in Ohio where it’s so cold and dreary. I was commiserating with a friend today when we realized that we still have months — months! — of winter left.  I can make it, I can make it, I can make it…. 🙂

Full-Frame Warbler Action on the Boardwalk!

I didn’t expect to be posting already on our first day at the Biggest Week in American Birding but we had such an extraordinary experience in only 90 minutes on the Magee Marsh boardwalk this afternoon that I just had to share with you. Mostly pictures, few words, because we have to be on a bus at 6:00 am tomorrow for an all-day field trip.

Since we only had a short time to bird this afternoon, we only managed to get halfway across the boardwalk before we had to turn back. But oh my gosh did we get a show! The warblers were coming down so close to us that I couldn’t even get pictures of them because my camera won’t focus that close.  For example, this Prothonotary Warbler was within arm’s reach of us for so long that I almost didn’t manage to get a picture of him, but when I did, just look at this beauty, filling the frame of the camera:

Prothonotary Warbler, only a couple feet away!
Prothonotary Warbler, only a couple feet away!

Most of my bird pictures have to be cropped down, but not that baby! Immediately after we saw him, we got good looks at this Ovenbird:

Ovenbird
Ovenbird

Next up was this stunning Black-and-white Warbler:

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

We saw quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, and I got my first ever look at one of them from up on the observation tower, so I could see his gorgeous yellow-green back.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler seen from above -- isn't he gorgeous?
Black-throated Green Warbler seen from above — isn’t he gorgeous?
A very photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
A very photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

We’re in our room at the Maumee Bay Lodge now watching a beautiful sunset over Lake Erie, winding down from the excitement of the first day, eagerly looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to rain on us but somehow knowing that these amazing birds are still here makes that all right.

Are They Here Yet? Huh, huh? Are They Here Yet?

Girl with binoculars
(Photo by Johan Koolwaaij via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Yes, it’s that time again, when those of us in northern latitudes start thinking about the return of our songbird friends. After a long and difficult winter, it’s time to lift our eyes skyward in search of things with wings. It’s time to start watching the eBird maps to see where our favorite migrants are each week, and try to predict when they’ll be passing through. It’s time to celebrate the return of spring and look forward to many hours spent hunting for our favorite birds in the woods, marshes, and grasslands. Yes, the days are filled with anticipation.

eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
Black-and-White Warbler (by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Black-and-White Warbler (Photo by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This map shows where the Black and White Warblers are as of today…see, they’re already up to North Carolina! These striking birds spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and South America, with some of them only going as far south as Southern Texas or Florida. But they are definitely on the move now, and I’ll be checking eBird often now to watch the progression of those little orange markers on the map, which should pop up in Michigan in only four short weeks.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is also helping whip us all into a frenzy of excitement with their annual March Migration Madness brackets, where you can vote your favorite birds up in the rankings each week. I just voted for the Painted Bunting over the Bullock’s Oriole, basing my vote purely on the joyful colors of the bunting (I pick my basketball teams by the colors of their outfits too, by the way).

Today we're voting on the Tweet Sixteen...come and play with us (It's more fun than basketball!)
Today we’re voting on the Tweet Sixteen…come and play with us (It’s more fun than basketball!) (Photo by Melissa James via Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It occurs to me that the Cornell Lab is a serious enabler. But in this sense, that’s a very good thing.

Photo via Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license
Is that a bird over there? Is it? I think it is!                                                              (Photo by Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license)

If you’re curious (or obsessed) and want to find out where and when the birds will be in your area, you can read the forecasts on Cornell’s Birdcast site. 

Since I’ll be so focused on birds for the next couple of months, I’d be thrilled to answer any of your bird-related questions if you want to send them to me. Heck, I’ll do that anytime. I’m no expert, but I sure know where to find answers. I’m trained as a librarian–so I’ve got killer research skills–and I know quite a few bird experts too. Just leave me a comment or use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page. I guess I’m an enabler too. 😉

Wherever you’re reading this from, I hope you find time to get out in nature this spring. And don’t forget to look up in the trees occasionally — you never know what might turn up during migration!

Booby Attack

No, not those boobies — I’m talking about birds here! (Although I’m curious to see how many hits I get to my blog for the wrong reasons, lol.) It’s finally time for some stories from our vacation on Kaua’i. This one is about two of the most dramatic things that happened on our trip, both involving birds.

Our first stop as we explored the island was Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Many visitors are drawn to this spot because it’s the northernmost point in the state of Hawai’i. Others come to see the picturesque lighthouse. You won’t be surprised to learn that we went there to see the sea birds (ha ha).

Kilauea Lighthouse -KimIt hadn’t crossed my mind to check the hours before heading over there, so we ended up having to wait outside the gate for 45 minutes. But that was fine, because the view from outside the gate was the best view of the lighthouse anyway, and I used the time to get up close and personal with some exciting birds while we waited.

Red-crested Cardinals
Red-crested Cardinals

Almost every bird I saw on this trip was new and exciting; it was like being a kid in a candy store, running around wide-eyed trying to see everything at once. I still smile when I think of the Red-crested Cardinals that are so common all over the island. They’re such close relatives to the familiar and beloved Northern Cardinals we have here in Michigan, and yet they’re so different. I mean, just look at these birds, will ya? These cardinals were brought to Kaua’i from Brazil, so I thought of them as being all dressed up for Carnaval, the big festival in Rio de Janeiro. But while the people of Rio only wear their flamboyant costumes for a few days each year, these birds keep their magnificent outfits all year long. I was lucky enough to find an approachable pair foraging on the ground and got my best shots of these adorable cardinals right there.

I'm all dressed up, where's the party?
I’m all dressed up, where’s the party?

The Hawaiian Geese called Nene (“nay-nay”) are also very approachable. They kept coming too close for my camera lens, forcing me to keep backing up to get shots of them. I love the patterning on their necks, and they made a soft murmuring sound that was very endearing. I think they were begging for food, actually. The Nene is Hawaii’s state bird, and is on the Endangered Species List. In 1951 their population had declined to about 30 birds, but thanks to intensive conservation efforts, there are now about 2,000 of them living on several of the Hawaiian islands.

Nene, endangered Hawaiian Goose
Nene, endangered Hawaiian Goose
Roosters in stealth mode....
Roosters in stealth mode….
Moa, aka Red Junglefowl
Moa, aka Red Junglefowl

Notice the roosters behind me as I was taking photos of the Nene? Well these roosters were the source of the first dramatic moment of the morning. Just like the geese, the roosters have no fear of humans. In fact, they’ll follow you around begging too. They’re all so beautiful, each with their own colors and patterns, that I couldn’t resist reaching my hand out to draw one closer to me. As I knelt down and started to extend my arm, I knew it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But by then it was too late. The rooster, assuming I had food in my hand, lunged for it with a fast pecking motion of his head. That, of course, startled me and I fell onto the pavement, tearing a big gash in the side of my ankle. And even worse, my camera with the expensive 300mm lens on it also hit the pavement. I felt like an idiot. Thankfully nobody was watching, or at least they had the decency to pretend they hadn’t seen what happened. Eric and I now refer to this incident as “the day Kim was attacked by a rooster.” I’m not proud of it, but it is funny. I still have a scar on my ankle, but my camera was unharmed.

Ok, maybe that was a mini-drama. I might have exaggerated for effect.

White-tailed Tropicbird - isn't that beautiful?
White-tailed Tropicbird – isn’t he beautiful?

Shortly after the rooster attack, the gates opened and we drove down the narrow, winding road to the parking lot beside the lighthouse. We’d been able to watch the large seabirds from outside the gate, but down on the point we got to see them soaring directly over our heads. And they were awesome. There were White-tailed Tropicbirds, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Red-footed Boobies, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and Great Frigate Birds. Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time of year for the Laysan Albatrosses to be around.

So the real drama of the day involved the Great Frigatebirds attacking the Red-footed Boobies to take their fish away from them. And not only did I get to see this fascinating behavior, but I was stunned that I was able to get some pretty good photos of the mid-air action. First, here’s a photo of a Great Frigatebird:

Great Frigatebird on patrol
Great Frigatebird on patrol

You can’t tell from a photo, but that bird has a seven foot wingspan and can live for thirty years. Just fantastic birds!

And here’s a photo of a Red-footed Booby:

Red-footed Booby, unsuspecting....
Red-footed Booby, unsuspecting….

I think the blue bills of these boobies are so pretty. And I learned that they use their big red webbed feet to incubate their eggs (most birds incubate their eggs by sitting on them so they absorb heat from a brood patch on the parent bird’s abdomen). That’s interesting!

Boobies dive straight down into the ocean, as deep as about 30 feet, to catch their prey. And maybe because they don’t want to get wet, the frigatebirds have a habit of stealing food from the boobies. They attack the boobies in mid-air, forcing them to drop the fish they’re carrying. And when the harassed booby opens its mouth to screech its displeasure, the frigatebird swoops down and grabs the free-falling fish right out of the air. Sounds dramatic, right? Take a look at this series of photos:

Two frigatebirds ganging up on a booby with a meal —

Two on one, no fair!
Two on one, no fair!

The booby tries to escape —

Indignant Booby!
Indignant Booby

The booby drops its food — see it in mid-air?

A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.
A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.

The frigatebird swoops down and gets an easy meal. Well, relatively easy. At least easier than finding your own fish, I guess. There’s lots of loud squawking whenever this happens, so it’s hard to miss it. Or so I thought. I was amazed to notice that lots of my fellow tourists didn’t even look up when the birds were screeching directly overhead. I felt sorry for those who missed a golden opportunity to witness this amazing spectacle.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick
Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick

But one thing everyone did notice was the baby Wedge-tailed Shearwater tucked into a planter right beside the doorway to the visitor center. Thankfully the officials had made a barrier of yellow tape to protect the baby, because people were really pushing the boundaries trying to get their phone cameras right in its fuzzy little face. I was glad I had my telephoto lens on so I could take my photos from a respectful distance. Poor little guy. I can’t imagine how the parents were managing to get in there to feed him with so many people crowding him all the time.

I hope you enjoyed this visit to one of our nation’s most beautiful National Wildlife Refuges. Here’s one last photo, looking northward from the lighthouse at the stunning coast of Kaua’i:

Northeast coast of Kaua'i, seen from Kilauea Point NWR
Northeast coast of Kaua’i, seen from Kilauea Point NWR