Pirates of the Sky – Galápagos, Part 2

In my first post about the Galápagos trip, I showed you photos of the beloved and iconic blue-footed boobies. Most of those images were made on North Seymour, a small island that’s host to large colonies of the boobies as well as frigatebirds. So let’s continue with the wonders of North Seymour. As our zodiac left the ship and approached this restricted-access island, I was enthralled by the sight of a sky filled with enormous birds soaring over us.

Frigatebirds flying collage w sig

Magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) are aptly named, because they are simply spectacular. Most days there were small groups of them soaring above the ship, giving us dramatic close views. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, this giant seabird is often called a pirate of the sky because of its habit of stealing food from other birds. You see, the frigatebird doesn’t have waterproof feathers like most other seabirds, making it unable to dive into the sea for its food. It can grab fish from the surface with its hooked bill, but more often it seems to prefer taking food from boobies and other seabirds.

Great Frigatebirds attacking booby and food falling below
A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.

The first time I witnessed this thieving behavior was on Kaua’i, where I photographed two great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) forcing a red-footed booby (Sula sula) to drop its food. In this photo you can see the food is falling as the booby squawks its displeasure. After the food is released by the booby, the frigatebird swoops below to grab it before it hits the water. It’s all very dramatic and fun to watch.

Magnificent frigatebird with inflated gular sac w sig
Pick me, pick me!!

On North Seymour we were treated to close encounters with lots of nesting frigatebirds, and got to see their courtship behavior. While they don’t have a cute dance ritual like the boobies do, the male frigatebird has his own unique method of attracting a mate. He inflates his gular sac, a red pouch on his throat, which serves as the signal to all the ladies that he is an eligible bachelor. The island was dotted with males displaying their enormous scarlet gular sacs, eyes looking skyward, each one patiently waiting for a female to choose him.

Frigatebird in flight with red gular sac w sig
Male frigatebird soaring over us
Magnificent frigatebird female w sig
Female magnificent frigatebird, with her pretty blue eye ring

Once the female selects her mate, the two commence nest building. Usually the female stays on the nest to protect it from stick thieves, while the male goes out and gathers more sticks.

Both the magnificent and great frigatebirds live and breed in the Galápagos. Here’s a pair of great frigatebirds on a nest. Compare the female in this picture with the female in the photo above; the magnificent has a blue eye ring while the great has a red eye ring.

Great frigatebirds on nest w sig - red eye ring
Great frigatebirds on nest (Fregata magnificens); note the red eye ring on the female

North Seymour island was perhaps one of my favorite places of this entire trip. It was a wild and remote place, teeming with a great variety of animals. And as much as I loved the spectacle of the blue-footed boobies and the frigatebirds, there was another creature on this island that unexpectedly stole my heart.

On other islands earlier in the week, I’d seen lots of tiny lava lizards and medium-sized marine iguanas, but nothing had prepared me for the stunning beauty of the lizards on this island. Meet Conolophus subcristatus, the Galapagos land iguana.

Land iguana head crop w sig

These guys were just everywhere, often right beside the trail resting in the shade as dozens of awed humans walked past them.  Our naturalist guide was counting them, trying to beat her personal high count of about 70 on a one-hour walk. I think we counted almost 50 on this day, and I’m sure we missed plenty of them as we were distracted by boobies and frigatebirds overhead or sea lions on the rocky shores.

Land iguana great pose edited w sig
Land iguana shedding his old skin, exposing bright new colors

Even today, more than a week after the trip, I’m blown away when I look at these lizards. You should have seen them in all their majesty, lumbering across the hot sand and rocks, adorned in the colors of the sun! They make me wish I were an artist so I could draw or paint them.

Land iguana paintingLuckily for me, I was able to purchase an original painting from a local artist to commemorate the feelings I had as I watched these equatorial dragons roaming their kingdom. I can’t wait to get this painting framed so it can hang in my home. I’ve joked with friends that I’m the only person they know with giant photos of dragonflies and other insects on their living room walls…just wait until they see this hanging over the sofa!

 

land iguana skeleton w sig
Land iguana skeleton

Land iguana on sand edited w sig

Land iguana by ship staff (1)
Photo by staff of the Celebrity Xpedition

This last image isn’t mine; it was taken by one of the ship’s naturalists, and given to us at the end of the cruise, along with hundreds of other photos from the week’s adventures. I like to think that if I’d been allowed to spend more time with these iguanas, I could have come up with an image like this on my own. Maybe one day I’ll get another chance.

These first two posts have barely made a dent in this trip report, so next time I’ll show you even more natural wonders of the Galápagos!

Seeing What You Want to See

A few weeks ago I went up to Michigan with my friend Tracy to see the Sandhill Cranes during their annual migration. We spent two days in the Jackson area, roaming the rural roads around Haehnle Sanctuary. Many of the cranes roost in the sanctuary’s marsh each night, but during the day they can be found feeding in agricultural fields nearby.

Sandhill cranes in corn field - blogWe were armed with a map showing where the cranes had been spotted in recent days, and so it wasn’t hard to find them. The first group we found had about 125 birds in it, and we spent some time watching them interact with each other as smaller groups flew in and out. On the second morning we found a large flock of more than 500 cranes, and watched them dancing, feeding, and flying overhead, all with the background noise of their prehistoric, spine-tingling bugle calls. It was fantastic.

It was a cold, blustery weekend with a gray sky, and the scenery was classic farm country:

Red barns in crane country - Jackson Michigan w sig

Crane monkey collage v2
I refer to this as the flying monkey posture, because when they drop out of the sky in groups like this, they remind me of the simian army in the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not posting too many crane photos today because I’ve shared so many of them already in past posts, and I’ve got another story to tell here.

We were hoping to find the single Whooping Crane that had been reported in the area, but that didn’t happen. I was reminding myself that it would be all too easy to trick myself into seeing a Whooping Crane because that’s what I was looking for. In fact, that happens very often among birders; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people mistake one warbler for another one that they’re desperately hoping to see. Apparently your brain tries really hard to give you what you want.

And that’s an important preface to this next part of the story. As Tracy drove along one of the rural roads, I noticed two ducks as we approached a farm pond. I quickly pointed them out and as she pulled the car off onto the side of the road I could tell they were beautiful male Wood Ducks.  I rarely get a good view of this shy species, so I was very excited. The pond was on the driver’s side of the car, so I began shooting photos through the car from my position in the passenger seat. At first my view of the ducks was blocked by the angle of the bank, but I kept shooting photos while Tracy took shots from the driver’s seat.

Here are the first two shots I took:

Wood ducks - obstructed first view
It was raining and my view was obstructed…
Wood ducks - slightly better view 2
Starting to get a clearer view here…

Then she drove down the road a bit and turned around so I could be on the side closest to the pond. As I started shooting photos from my better vantage point, I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t right about this scene.

Wood duck decoy
Hmm, he looks much too perfect…

First of all, why were these two male ducks in full breeding plumage in October? And why were they sitting there calmly, out in the open, as we watched them from maybe fifty feet away? Usually when I come upon Wood Ducks, they hightail it in the opposite direction — either swimming or flying — before I can even lift the camera. But these two just floated lazily around…slowly spinning in a circle…wait, that’s weird…. Then I realized my mistake: these were decoys!

Wood duck decoy closer crop
How embarrassing — it’s fake!!

I almost died laughing as I understood that my brain had wanted to believe they were real, and that’s why it took me a while to figure out the truth. I mean, they might have been wooden ducks, but they were not Wood Ducks! I still smile when I think about that day. I feel foolish admitting that this happened, but I also remember how excited we both were when we thought we had the perfect view of these gorgeous ducks.  It wasn’t long, but it was fantastic while it lasted. I may not have gotten the shots I’d hoped for, but this story will entertain me for a long time to come.

And as I’m writing this, I’ve just remembered that this is the second time recently that this has happened to me. You may recall a post from June, when I mistook an Eastern Least Clubtail for a Riffle Snaketail in Hell Hollow (those are dragonflies).  In that post I linked to an article in Psychology Today about this phenomenon. I’ll quote a bit of it here, just to back up my assertion that I’m not a total fool:

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Humbled by that encounter, I was a bit hesitant a few minutes later when I saw what I thought were two Eastern Meadowlarks fly into a field as we watched another group of cranes. Could I be fooled again so soon? But no, there’s no mistaking that bright yellow breast, and luckily I was able to get some photos as the meadowlarks foraged in the grasses. I discovered as I added these birds to my eBird report that they could have been either Western or Eastern Meadowlarks at that location at that time of year, but either way, they were gorgeous.

Eastern meadowlark in late October - Jackson County Michigan (6)

This whole idea that ‘we see what we expect to see’ can be used in a more positive, intentional way in our lives. I’ve found that I have the power to change my life experience, both positively or negatively, by the way I allow my expectations to develop before a particular event.  If I let myself believe that I’m going to have a bad time — the weather will suck, the food won’t be good, people won’t talk to me, whatever — then there’s an increased likelihood that I will have a bad time. On the other hand, if I intentionally expect to have a good experience — my friends will be there, I’ll see cool bugs, the fresh air will be good for me –– then it’s much more likely to be so.

I encourage you to experiment with this idea too. It has made a huge difference in my life in recent years. And if you ever see a duck that just doesn’t look quite right…take a closer look. 🙂

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.

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.

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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

 

Clarity

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Typical scenery in Costa Rica – gorgeous mountain views

Do you find that you go through phases in life where your interests change suddenly? I  do, and I’m moving into another one of those now. I think my recent trip to Costa Rica helped clarify things for me — traveling always helps to get my brain out of a rut. More about the trip below, but first a bit about those changing passions of life.

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Resplendent Quetzal

I spent the first decade of this century immersed in the knitting world, spending hours each day creating sweaters, socks, and hats. I went to knitting conventions, took classes, and bought lots of yarn.  I loved it so much I started a knitting design business. I sold my patterns nationwide and had a blast doing the marketing and all the other facets of running a business. And then one day I just lost interest in it all.  I think it was because I’d made my hobby into my job, and that sucked the joy out of it.

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Boat-billed Herons

After the knitting phase, I developed an intense interest in birdwatching, and left my knitting needles to gather dust as I ran around the woods and meadows looking for new species to add to my growing bird list. I joined my local Audubon chapter, attended birding events, and made lots of nature-loving friends. And then I took a job in the birding world. And very quickly after that I discovered that my passion for birding was waning. (More confirmation that it’s often not a good idea to turn a hobby into a job.)

So as I mentioned, I just spent a week at a birding lodge in Costa Rica and was surprised to realize that my enthusiasm for finding new birds had evaporated. I’m sure part of the reason was that it was very humid and muddy, and as much as I like to tell myself that I’m okay with that, I’m not. (I hate to sweat so much that I’ve often wished I could do my workouts in the shower so the sweat would wash off immediately. You think I’m joking about that? Nope.) I think I’m suddenly at a point in my life where I’m no longer willing to traipse around on muddy mountain roads getting attacked by mosquitoes while trying to get a brief glimpse of a bird I won’t even remember in two months.

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Golden-olive Woodpecker

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve just written that, actually, but I think it’s true. I still love birds, but I can’t see myself traveling internationally again for the sole purpose of adding new species to my list. I’d rather spend quality time with birds closer to home. Two years ago, when I went to Panama, I was totally geeked about the birds. But it’s different now. I just didn’t feel it on this trip.

Even when I stood on the balcony at the lodge watching dozens of hummingbirds swarming around a half dozen feeders, I couldn’t summon the interest to try and identify the various species. It’s not that I didn’t get enjoyment from sitting there watching them, but I had no desire to identify every one of them just in case it was a new name to add to a list. I was content to know the names of a half dozen species, and after that I didn’t really care. I know the hardcore birders out there will revoke my “real birder” badge now, but that’s okay. I willingly surrender it.

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Fiery-throated Hummingbird
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One Fiery-throated Hummer and two Lesser Violetears

trio-of-brahma-cows-on-a-hillI do still enjoy trying to get a nice photo of a bird though, and that’s why I’m sharing a few in this post. But you’ll also notice some non-bird photos from this trip. I really loved those Brahma cows standing on the steep hillsides. Talk about picturesque…. (Here’s my Flickr album from the Costa Rica trip, with more pics being added in the next few days.)

Despite this waning passion for the sporting aspect of birding, I did have enthusiasm for some of the birds on this trip. Along with the beautiful Resplendent Quetzal and the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, I was hoping to see some more woodpecker species on this trip. There’s something about woodpeckers that I find irresistible. In fact, if given a choice to watch hummingbirds or woodies, I believe I would choose the woodpeckers. I’ve written a bit about woodpeckers here before.

Cinnamon Woodpecker male
Cinnamon Woodpecker (Panama)

Here at home we have quite a few beautiful species of woodpeckers: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Pileated, Northern Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. (Here’s a link to my Flickr photos of woodpeckers in Michigan and Ohio.) And when I was in Panama a couple  years ago, I saw the beautiful Cinnamon Woodpecker, the Crimson-crested, the Black-cheeked, Red-crowned,  and the Lineated Woodpecker.

In Costa Rica I saw a few more types, including the Golden-olive Woodpecker and my favorite, the Acorn Woodpecker. We stopped at a feeding station on one of our day trips, and as we walked toward it we saw a small group of Acorn Woodpeckers (aka clown-faced woodpeckers) fly up into the trees.  I didn’t  recall ever seeing woodpeckers in groups before, but I was so busy trying to get photos of them and all the other birds that day that I didn’t think too much about that interesting tidbit. So imagine my delight when I sorted my mail once I returned home and found that the new issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest has an article about Acorn Woodpeckers! (“The Clown-faced Woodpecker with an Obsession,” by Steve Shunk.)

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Acorn Woodpecker (female)

In this article I learned some fascinating facts about these birds. They often live in small family groups consisting of a mated pair and their offspring from past years. Hmm, that could explain why there were so many together that day in Costa Rica. And in addition to the obvious acorns, which they prefer to eat when they’re fresh in the last summer and fall, these woodpeckers actually catch insects on the wing in much the same way as the typical flycatchers do.

I wish we’d had time to stay and watch them for a while longer, but that’s not how things work on these group birding trips, so it was back into the van and on to the next stop….

I’ve been feeling rather unsettled these past couple months. I thought it was mostly because I’d quit my job and wasn’t sure what I would do next. But writing this has helped me clarify what’s actually going on, and now I know that I’m moving into another stage of my life with exciting new interests. And leaving that job was what enabled me to get some much-needed distance from the intensity of the birding world. I’m sure birds will still be an important part of the way I connect with nature, but now I’m free to explore some of the other things I’ve been keeping on the back burner in recent years. I’m suddenly feeling quite optimistic and purposeful, and I think that’s a very good way to enter the new year.

Here’s hoping you have something to look forward to in 2017 as well.

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Cattle Egret on a cow…match made in heaven, lol

 

 

 

 

Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap

You know how great it feels when your day off coincides with a fantastic weather forecast? Well that’s what happened for me on Monday this week, and I took full advantage of it to get outdoors and poke around to see what I could find. I was particularly grateful for this day because I’d spent the previous day in bed with a migraine that lasted for 19 hours. Yep, that’s right, 19 hours.  After losing an entire day, it’s no surprise that I was eager to reclaim my life the next morning. I usually feel like I’ve been reborn on the day after a migraine, and am reminded to be thankful for every pain-free day I have.Lotus flowers in bloom at Meadowbrook v2

So on this glorious day I decided to visit one of the locations on the Lake Erie Birding Trail (LEBT). The Ohio LEBT Guidebook, published by the Ohio Division of Wildlife just a couple years ago, is a compilation of 88 birding locations along the Lake Erie shore of Ohio. It’s a really handy book that I often keep in my car in case I feel like exploring someplace new. So far I’ve visited 21 of the sites on the “trail” — and I also happen to work at one of them (#73, Black Swamp Bird Observatory).  Today my  destination was Meadowbrook Marsh, a property of 190 acres that includes a large marsh and meadows surrounded by tall trees. As you can see in the photo above, the gorgeous lotus flowers are in full bloom now.

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There were hundreds of these Pearl Crescents fluttering in the grass (Phyciodes tharos)

As I started walking the grass path alongside the big meadow, I noticed that the ground was dancing beneath my feet. There were hundreds of little Pearl Crescent butterflies feeding on clover and other flowers — it was really something to see. I tried to get a video that would convey the magic of it all, but wasn’t able to get anything I felt was worth sharing here. So just close your eyes and imagine walking slowly in the grass,  watching dozens of butterflies taking flight in front of you with each step. It was so pretty — they’d flutter a few feet away and alight on their next food source. I felt like I was in some sort of fairy land! And so it was that my walk started off with a big smile.

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Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis)

Mixed in with all those Pearl Crescents, I found a little butterfly that I’d never seen before. It was about the same size, maybe an inch and a half across, but the wings were black with whitish spots, and the body had a bluish tint to it. It turned out to be a Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis). I love discovering something I’ve never seen before because each discovery makes me appreciate the diversity of life that’s around me every day. So much of the natural world goes unnoticed in our busy lives, doesn’t it?

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House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)

A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable chattering of a House Wren and was able to quickly find him moving through the trees beside me. There were several of them in a mixed group that included Common Yellowthroats (a type of warbler) and Indigo Buntings. All three species were agitated by my presence, and I saw quite a few curious juveniles who were apparently being scolded by their parents to get away from the human!

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Common Yellowthroat, a type of warbler. This is a young inquisitive male.

I continued walking and came upon another pocket of bird activity. This one had young Brown Thrashers and several Great Crested Flycatchers, and a single tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher buzzing around the treetops and flicking his long tail.

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A young Brown Thrasher

One of my favorite birds was this pretty female Cape May Warbler, who posed nicely for me:

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Female Cape May Warbler

Grasshoppers are always hard to photograph because they leap so fast and far at the slightest movement. But I managed to get a couple shots of this one, at least. I think it’s a Red-legged Grasshopper.

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Red-legged Grasshopper (at least I think that’s the right species)

And take a look at this close crop of his leg joints on the hind legs. It’s clear that they’re very specialized to allow him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. (Oh wait, that’s Superman, isn’t it?)

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Close-up of semi-lunar processes on grasshopper’s hind legs

Those joints are called the semi-lunar processes. I found a website that explains how they function, and it even includes slow-motion video to show the mechanics of the spring motion. If you’re curious, it’s here.

There weren’t too many dragonflies around on this day, but I did manage to get a photo of an Eastern Amberwing, one of our smaller dragonflies:

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Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera)

Before I realized it, I’d spent two hours at Meadowbrook and the sun was starting to get a bit too intense. So I reluctantly ended my walk after having seen 27 species of birds, about a half dozen types of butterflies (including a couple Monarchs), and lots of other insects that I haven’t identified yet.

I just find these quiet walks in natural places to be so life-affirming and renewing. So today I’m grateful for those “Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap,” for all the ways they enrich my experience of life on this beautiful planet.