And…We’re Back – Galápagos, Part 1

Well, that went by quickly, didn’t it? The anticipation of the Galápagos trip lasted for months, and then it was all over in a flash.  I’m editing hundreds of photos and struggling with how to write about it. There were highs and lows, as there are with any travel experience. The highs revolved around the wildlife, so that’s the part I’m going to write about the most. The less enjoyable parts were things like travel delays, regimented daily schedules on the ship, and a little bit of altitude sickness in Quito.

Cruise map for Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos Inner Loop
The route we took on the cruise around the Galápagos

I’m not going to recap the trip day-by-day, but rather just share my photos and thoughts about the animals. So let’s get started with, what else, blue-footed boobies!

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Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)

I’d say that, along with the giant tortoises, the blue-footed boobies are one of the most sought-after species by visitors to the islands. Even though they’re found in other parts of the world, they’ve become iconic symbols of the Galápagos.  My first close encounter with these striking and comical birds was when our zodiac boat floated past this one standing on a rocky outcrop at Rabida island. As you can see, the bird showed virtually no reaction to the appearance of 15 humans a few yards away.

That’s one of the most amazing things about wildlife experiences in the Galápagos  — the animals don’t flee when we approach, as they do in other parts of the world.  Most of these islands are so remote and devoid of people that the animals don’t understand that humans are a source of danger. It’s actually heartbreaking to realize that the entire animal kingdom has to fear us; I felt the gift of this precious experience deep in my heart every time I was able to have a close encounter like this. I admit that it was a bit disconcerting to feel joy and sadness at the same time.

Here’s a video of the blue-footed booby courtship dance, one of the highlights of the trip. I giggled at the beginning because it seemed that the female (on the right) leaned over and commanded the male to dance for her. And, as you see, he obliged her. Notice the difference in pupil size between the sexes; the male’s pupil is smaller than the female’s. She’s also larger-bodied than he is, as is common with many birds.

Blue-footed boobies showing pupil size differences in sexes w sig
Note the smaller pupil size in the male, standing behind the female

A few minutes later I was supremely lucky to come upon another pair of boobies standing just a few feet from the edge of the trail, and was able to use my cell phone to record them mating!

When the male walked toward me after the completion of his task, it seemed he was seeking accolades for his performance, and that made me smile. What a proud boy he was! (Yes, a harmless bit of anthropomorphizing, I know.)

The male booby makes a whistling sound, while the female’s call is more of a honking sound. Here’s a short clip showing a male whistling:

The population of blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos has suffered in recent years due to a decline in sardines after the 1997 El Niño. You can read more about their struggle for survival here.

We also saw two other species of boobies on this trip, the red-footed and the Nazca booby.

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Nazca booby (Sula granti)
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Red-footed booby (Sula sula)

The red-footed booby is the only one to have several color morphs, and it’s also the one most likely to be found nesting in trees rather than on the rocks (at least I think that’s what our guide said). I was enchanted by the pink and blue coloration on the beak of this cartoonish bird and would have loved to have seen one up close instead of 75 feet above me on a cliff, as this one was.

Blue-footed booby head crop w sigI want to point out that most of my photos on this trip were taken from zodiacs that were bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, so the sharpness of the images is much less than I would have liked. But even so, I hope you enjoy seeing them.

I’ve got much more to show you in upcoming posts…the only penguin in the northern hemisphere, the only nocturnal gull in the world, and the most beautiful lizards you’ve ever seen!

 

 

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.

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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.

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American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
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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.

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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…. 🙂

A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

Good grief, where do I even begin? I just spent a week down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and my head is still spinning from all the beautiful birds I saw. It was so nice to escape the cold of northwest Ohio for a few days, even though the weather down in the McAllen area wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped. Most days we saw high temps in the upper 60s, with quite a bit of cloudiness and some scattered rain.

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Roseate Spoonbills, one of my most-wanted species!

But that didn’t have much of an impact on how much I enjoyed this trip. My only other visit to this area was in November three years ago, and I didn’t have a very good time on that trip, so I was eager to give Texas a chance to redeem itself. And it did that in spades, with the help of my friend Rick Nirschl.

Rick is a Toledo resident who spends winters in the Rio Grande Valley. He has an amazing ability to find any bird you might want to see, whether it’s in Ohio or Texas. He’s well-known for finding new bird and dragonfly records in both states, and even discovered a dragonfly that had never been identified before (It has since been named the Sarracenia Spiketail, Cordulegaster sarracenia). So with Rick as my world-class tour guide this week, I got to see almost every bird I’d hoped to find, as well as enjoying great conversation and soaking up as much of his knowledge of the natural world as I possibly could. Nature experiences don’t get much better than this.

Places we visited included Quinta Mazatlan, Estero Llano Grande, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Falcon State Park, and the National Butterfly Center. Rick also knows lots of special spots along various roads and on the private property of his many friends in the area.

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Pyrrhuloxia, a desert relative of our cardinal

One of the things that made a big impression on me down there was that there were birds everywhere, as contrasted with right now in my part of Ohio, which sometimes feels dead and barren because the birds are so scarce.

And in Texas many of the birds are vocal now, whether it’s the noisy chatter of a large flock of blackbirds or parakeets, or the calls of songbirds in the woods. It was just so refreshing to see and hear so much bird activity at a time of year when I’m not able to do that at home. It’s always fun to be down south in winter and see some of “our” birds on their wintering grounds. I saw more Orange-crowned Warblers on this trip than I’ve seen in my entire life!

Each of these photos is more than just a record of the physical presence of a bird. A photo serves as a memory trigger, reminding me of where I was, what I was searching for, who I was with, and even what we were talking about while we watched the birds. When I get to the point in my life where I can’t travel anymore, I’ll be able to re-live these experiences just by looking through my photos.

But I do have a couple stories to tell you about a few photos. Let’s start with one of my favorites, these American White Pelicans. While planning my trip I’d talked to Rick about some birds I’d like to see. But somehow I didn’t even think about pelicans, so of course he didn’t make any special effort to show me those birds. One day he took me to the home of a friend who lives on a resaca, which is a lake formed when an oxbow of the Rio Grande River gets cut off from the main river and becomes a separate body of water.

We got out of the car and started walking toward the back of the house, toward the resaca. Even from a distance I could see the hundreds and hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling ducks out there (I eventually estimated 1,000). That was really neat, because I’d only seen a few of those beautiful ducks in Ohio a few years ago.

Black-bellied Whistling ducks w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Black-bellied Whistling-ducks

But as we got closer to the bank of the lake, I noticed a few pelicans very close to shore, and my jaw dropped as I absorbed their enormity. I quickly stepped behind a large palm tree to try not to spook the birds, and leaned over slightly to start taking photos of them.

American White Pelicans w sig - copyright Kim Smith
American White Pelicans

Meanwhile, from about 10 feet to my left, Rick was trying to get me to come look at a Ringed Kingfisher. I continued shooting the pelicans and said, “Okay, just a sec, I’m watching the pelicans!” A minute or so later I walked over and looked at the kingfisher, and then went back to watching the pelicans. I just couldn’t get enough of them! In addition to the ones already on the water, I got to see a few more of these colossal birds fly in, a spectacle in itself.

Pelican in flight w sig

After we were done watching the birds, we got in the car and had a good laugh when Rick said that lots of people come here specifically to find a Ringed Kingfisher, and I was more fascinated with the rather ordinary pelicans. Don’t get me wrong, that kingfisher was pretty neat. But the pelicans were extraordinary. Oh man, I still smile when I think of those enormous birds with buckets on their faces.

Another day we stopped to watch a large flock of Green Parakeets on power lines in the city of Mission. We also saw Monk Parakeets in the town of Hidalgo. As my friend Ryan says, there’s something so cool about green birds. That bright green almost glows on an overcast day, as does the red of a Vermillion Flycatcher, of which we also saw a few.

Monk parakeets in Hidalgo city - cropped w sig
Monk parakeets

And speaking of bird colors, I finally got to see a Painted Bunting. This clownish bird is aptly named, because he looks like someone spilled several cans of paint all over him. He makes me smile.

Painted Bunting w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Painted Bunting

Another excellent experience was finding this Cactus Wren, a life bird for me. (I haven’t tallied up my life birds from this trip, but I probably added twenty species.) Rick walked up to a row of cacti along a fence and said we could probably find a Cactus Wren there, and boom, this one popped up and started singing directly in front of us. We both slow-walked closer and closer, shooting photos as we moved, and we eventually got up to the fence, which put us about 15 feet from the bird. We both got incredible views of this strikingly-marked wren, and he watched us calmly until we started walking away and then he dropped down to the ground and resumed his business.

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Cactus wren

This Blue Bunting is normally a bird of Mexico and northern Central America, but this species occasionally shows up in southern Texas. This particular bird had been frequenting the feeders at the World Birding Center at Quinta Mazatlan, and after a couple unsuccessful stakeouts, we both got to see it. Unfortunately our sightings were in poor lighting and, combined with the dark color of the bird, made for difficulty getting high quality images. But even a poor image can be a fantastic memory.

Blue Bunting lifer at Quinta Mazatlan w sig
Blue bunting, an unusual find

One day as we arrived back at my hotel, I saw this White-tailed kite hovering above the adjacent field. This was the first time I’d seen this species in the U.S., and I was excited to try for a photo. I knew the chances of getting a good photo were low because of the white bird against a gray sky, but I took several shots anyway. As I clicked through the series of photos on the computer later, I was struck by the varying wing postures I’d captured as the bird hovered in the air searching for small mammals below. I decided to paste two of the different shots together, and this is the result. Isn’t this bird gorgeous?

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White-tailed Kite, 2 images of the same bird

One of the birds I’d wanted to see the most was the Burrowing Owl. And, as usual, Rick knew exactly where to find this one.

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Burrowing Owl

One bird I hadn’t even considered finding on this trip, however, was a Great Horned Owl. These birds are year-round residents in Ohio, and I was focused mostly on seeing birds I can’t see at home. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at Estero Llano Grande one afternoon and saw this beautiful silvery-gray owl sitting among the wind-tossed fronds of a palm tree.

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Great Horned Owl, gray morph

We don’t have this gray color morph up north, as far as I know, so it was a real treat to see this bird. And we were told that there’s another owl in the park, perhaps the mate of this one, although it’s not a gray morph. Despite the name of the bird, those pointy things on top of the owl’s head are not horns. They’re not ears either. They’re just tufts of feathers. I love how they’re blowing sideways in this shot.

I didn’t take many photos of things other than birds on this trip, but I did grab a quick shot of this cow as it emerged from the vegetation on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande River at Salineño. I noticed that the river had been much lower the last time I’d visited this location, and I wonder if the river ever gets low enough for livestock to cross the international border, and if so, how do they deal with that issue?

Cow standing in the Rio Grande River - Salineno Texas

Okay, that’s enough for this time. 🙂 Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Texas trip stories and photos coming up shortly.

Kayaks, Nesting Birds, and…Trash

Even my kayak has a birding bumper sticker!
Even my kayak has a birding bumper sticker!

We finally got our kayaks in the water this weekend, and it was looong overdue. This spring has been so full of birding and travel that we had let our beloved kayaks sit neglected in the garage. When I realized last week that it was almost July and we hadn’t been on the water yet, that was all the motivation I needed to plan an immediate outing.

When we first got our kayaks three years ago I started a notebook where I write about each lake we kayak on — how big it is, how busy it is, if there are motorboats there, if there’s a beach, if it’s noisy, if there are shady banks for taking refuge from the sun, if the birding is good there…stuff like that. That might sound like a weird thing to do, but when you go to so many different lakes you start to forget the details of each one. I also look back through photos I’ve taken on each outing to help refresh my memory when we’re trying to decide where we want to go that day. My notes for Bald Mountain’s Trout Lake said: “70-acre lake with great birds, few other boats, lots of dragonflies, small beach. Water at boat launch sort of slimy.” (That last bit matters because with kayaks you have to walk them into the water, so if the water is gross it can be unpleasant.)

We knew the day was going to be very hot, so we headed out as early as we could manage; we were on the water at Trout Lake by 9:30. Luckily the water at the boat launch was much clearer this time. And there was nobody at the beach either, so it was nice and quiet. Well, except for the constant rifle shots from the nearby shooting range…sigh. I’ve noticed a theme in Michigan state and county parks: Wherever there’s a nice nature area, there seems to be a shooting range nearby. I think there should be a law that shooting ranges have to be indoors so they don’t disturb the peace. I don’t see why they have to be open-air shooting ranges, do you? But I digress….

There was one other couple launching kayaks right behind us, but aside from them there was only one other boat on the lake. Very nice. As we started to paddle out, I immediately saw the resident pair of Mute Swans with their two adorable cygnets. We gave them a wide berth and headed to the far shore.

Mute Swan with cygnets. The other parent is just out of the photo frame.
Mute Swan with cygnets. The other parent is just out of the photo frame.

I remembered a little cove where I’d gotten lots of good dragonfly photos last year, so that’s where I went. As I rounded the bend into the cove, the first thing I saw was this:

Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake
Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake

Yes, that’s one of those horrible mylar balloons floating in the water. Just in case you don’t know about the dangers of these balloons, you might want to take a look at BalloonsBlow, an organization dedicated to making people aware of the harm these balloons do to the environment and to wildlife. I’ve seen some very sad photos of birds and other animals who died after getting tangled up in the ribbons or after eating pieces of the balloons. It just shouldn’t happen.  I doubt that anyone who’s aware of this issue would plan a balloon release, no matter what the occasion. There are always environmentally-friendly options for celebrations that don’t involve litter and unnecessary death; you just have to care.

So I made haste to the waste and grabbed that balloon out of the water, stashing it behind my seat for disposal at shore. And not 10 feet away I saw a fishing lure dangling from a tree snag (you can actually see it in the photo above). I started to wonder if my entire morning would be devoted to picking trash from the lake instead of birding and enjoying nature. So I untangled the fishing line and stashed it behind my seat too.

By this time Eric had continued on exploring the lake, no doubt wondering what the heck I was doing back in that little cove. I caught up with him and he had just spotted an Eastern Kingbird sitting on its nest overhanging the water. My photos didn’t turn out, but he got some good ones with his new Canon SX50 — this is his pic. What an amazing thing to see! I wonder about the survival possibilities for any eggs laid in a nest exposed to the hot sun like that; it doesn’t seem the best place to build a nest. I hope they manage to fledge some babies there.Nesting Kingbird bald mountain 01 by Eric (800x600)

I always feel so privileged to get such an intimate glimpse into a bird’s life that it’s hard to restrain myself from getting too close or staying too long. But I forced myself to move along  after less than 30 seconds, afraid that I might scare her off the nest.

The beach started to see some activity around 10:30 or so, but it still wasn’t too noisy. We paddled the full perimeter of the lake and saw more great birds: more kingbirds, some Baltimore Orioles, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, a gorgeous Red-tailed Hawk, a Gray Catbird singing boisterously, and even an Eastern Bluebird. I also watched a male Red-winged Blackbird feeding his recently-fledged young in the grass along the shore. I couldn’t get a photo of that but did manage to shoot a pic of the second youngster waiting up in the trees.

Fledgling Red-winged Blackbird waiting to be fed
Fledgling Red-winged Blackbird waiting to be fed

We headed for shore around 11:30 as it started to get uncomfortably hot out on the lake. We got another look at the cygnets as we passed, but didn’t dare get too close to those ferocious swan parents.

Trash I pulled from the lake
Trash I pulled from the lake

This is a photo of all the trash I collected from the lake: the orange mylar balloon, the fishing lure, a green inner tube floating toy, and a soda can. As sad as it was to see all this junk in the water, it felt really good to pull it all out of there. Next time maybe I’ll leave the binoculars at home and just take a trash bag….

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