Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Lifer Shorebird!

My life bird: a Terek sandpiper.

I had grandiose plans to make this new shorebird's identity a mystery—to make y'all guess about what species it was. I had still images and a short video clip. I had a clever, April-Foolsy write up baking in my tiny mind. Then the problems started....

First of all, I've been under the thumb of a debilitating virus/cold/disease and it's a difficult thing even to think straight. Mind you, I'm not asking for pity. I'm just completely unused to being this mentally and physically out of commission.

Secondly my computer is as full as a June wood tick on a fat puppy. So the programs I normally rely upon to help me post video to my blog (QuickTime, Final Cut) are not cooperating. I think it's a disk-space thing....but who knows. And I can't make the new (frustrating) YouTube work, either....

So this post will be decidedly straight forward.

Here's the rub. The new bird was a really cool, medium-sized shorebird with an upturned bill, called a Terek sandpiper. One of the very first articles I worked on as a cub-assistant-editor the first week I joined the staff of Bird Watcher's Digest, in 1988 (!), was about the discovery of a Terek sandpiper in California, and the mad birding dash that ensued. That bird was North America's first record for the species.

Terek is the name of a river in Russia, and I believe that's where the sandpiper gets its name: it breeds from Finland through Siberia.

So I had a longtime desire to see this bird. Now here I was at a huge expanse of shorebird habitat in Asia, looking for my lifer Terek sandpiper. During our orientation, the local guide showed us a poster with common shorebirds of the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Prominent among the birds shown was the Terek sandpiper. I asked the obvious question: "Are there Terek sandpipers here now?"

The answer came: "Oh yes, we should see them!"
When I replied "Ossum like a possum!" no one understood what I meant.
My friend Steve Rooke, one of the many Brits on this birding trip, said by way of explaining: "Don't mind him. He's American!"
Like that cleared things up....

Mr. Clever, Steve Rooke, scans for a rarity among the shorebirds at Olango.

As mentioned in yesterday's post, I spotted the Terek sandpiper up close to our observation blind, and I drank the view in. Everyone got good looks at it, but those in our party who had Asian birding experience (nearly everyone but me) were more interested in spotting rarer birds among the clouds of waders in the distance.

I focused on the Terek and took some photos and video. In the video you can hear my fellow birders picking through the other distant shorebirds. Then you hear me announce the Terek sandpiper—in semi-dorky fashion. If I could figure out how to edit the sound on videos in iMovie, I'd de-dorkify the clip. Alas, you gets what's there, sans edits.

It's great when you spot your own lifers, especially when it's a bird you've wondered about seeing for a long time. Twenty one years after I first read about the "Terek sand" I finally got to see one!


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Monday, March 09, 2009

Flying Foxes

A lifer mammal for me in the forest near Subic Bay: fruit bats, which are now (I'm told), officially called flying foxes. We saw two species in these large roosts: golden-crowned flying fox and Philippine Island flying fox. Fascinating creatures and something I've always wanted to see. The bats were opening their wings and flapping a bit to cool off in the late morning sun, which was already blazingly hot. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in each roost.

Today we're off to see the Underground River on Palawan Island, and its special birds....

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Friday, February 20, 2009

I Missed a Bird (and I Liked It!)

What IS this bird? Hint: It's NOT a northern harrier.

Earlier this week I flew down to Fort Myers, Florida to give a couple of presentations at events associated with Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to the fine Florida weather, and some early glimpses at birds we would not see in Ohio for two months, I had one particualr species on my hit list: short-tailed hawk.

I have never seen a short-tailed hawk in North America. In fact, it's one of just a couple of raptor species not yet marked on my life list. Some of the others are: gyrfalcon, California condor, the two "sea" eagles that sometimes make it to Alaska, and Eurasian hobby. Some day I will go after a gyrfalcon. And the Cali condor will be mine the next time I visit the Grand Canyon. The others I don't have any particular urge to see. But the short-tailed hawk intrigued me. So I gathered some intel on this species near Fort Myers and made my plans.

My parents had been sent by a birding friend, Phil, to a place called Harns (sometimes spelled Harnes) Marsh northeast of Fort Myers, in Lehigh Acres, Florida. They scored a short-tailed hawk there in a matter of an hour or so. My hopes were up for similar good fortune.

But fate had other ideas.

I arrived at Harns Marsh after a longish drive in heavy afternoon traffic. It's an out-of-the-way place tucked on the edge of a suburban neighborhood. Several houses on the road in to the marsh still bear the damage from recent hurricanes. I found the marsh itself and got out of my rental car. First bird: Turkey vulture. Second bird: Osprey. Third bird: Black vulture. Fourth bird: SNAIL KITE!!!

I love snail kites and this place was full of them. I kept scanning the skies and scoping the trees looking for my target bird, but my eyes kept falling back to the kites. A lot of beautiful, dark-gray adult males were hunting for apple snails in the marsh shallows. Working my way around the marsh edge to get the sun at my back, I was treated to wonderful looks. Such graceful birds!

For the next three hours I watched the birds of Harns Marsh. Sandhill cranes garroo'd, wood storks glided past, a peregrine, then a kestrel flew over. Ducks and blackbirds and limpkins and fish crows all made themselves known. It was a peaceful afternoon. So peaceful, in fact, that I was not disappointed about never seeing anything resembling a short-tailed hawk.

Oh well. I'll be back.

Here are some imags of the kites that I was able to capture.

Snail kite taking off. Note the bright orange-red feet!

An adult male snail kite.

Portrait shot of an adult male snail kite. See the elongated bill with the bodacious hooked tip? This is their escargot utensil.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Highlights of 2008: Birthday Lifer!

Bat falcon, Flores, Guatemala. March 3, 2008.

Am I jinxing myself by looking back at some of the year's most enjoyable birding moments before the year is even complete? I certainly hope not.*

One of the highlights from early 2008 was my birthday bat falcon in Flores, Guatemala. The bat falcon is a fairly common raptor in the tropics. In fact it was something of a sore point for me that I had not seen one after more than half a dozen trips to its range in Central America. I'd gotten amazing looks at a larger (and much rarer) relative, the orange-breasted falcon on two different trips to Tikal, but the bat falcon had eluded me.

My pal Jeff Bouton knew this and made it his special quest to add this bird to my list. He succeeded in high style, scoring me a Falco rufigularis on my actual birthday, last March 3rd.
I told this tale here in the pages of Bill of the Birds last March. JB shared his version of the event on his blog, The Leica Birding Blog.

The birthday bat falcon in Flores. It was a very patient bird.

The bat falcon, and being surrounded by friends and loved ones, made my birthday in 2008 a Happy Bird Day.

Gallo and life birds—they just seem to go together.

I believe there was also some beer and ice cream involved, though not at exactly the same time.

I get an ice cream assist while photographing the b-day bat falcon. Image by Jeff Bouton.

*The automatic URL pointer for this Blogspot version of Bill of the Birds went slightly haywire yesterday morning, so some of you may have been mistakenly redirected to the old Blogger BOTB. If that happened, sorry about that. You might want to fix your bookmark by copying the URL of this version. Or just sign up for the RSS feed and brace yourself for a daily helping of BOTB with a side of flies.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Life Bird 600-something

While helping to lead the field trip to Antelope Island State Park in The Great Salt Lake I got my first life bird in a while for North America. It was a chukar (pronounced chuck-er), a Eurasian species (and a member of the partridge family, but not The Partridge Family) introduced to North America by hunters. It's now established and breeding in many parts of the West, and thus is "countable" by those who keep track of such things. As I understand it, Danny Bonaduce is also established and breeding in certain parts of the West.

If I did a better job of keeping track, I'd actually know what number the chukar is on my life list. It's somewhere in the mid-600s I think...

Anyway it was cool to see a bird I'd never seen before. The chukar was a lifer for most of the 26 birders on our bus. No I did not force everyone to do the Life Bird Wiggle. It was too hot in the desert.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Chasing a Three-toed Lifer!

On our last full day in New Mexico, the weather forecast called for snow and cold. We planned to spend the day in our rented fauxdobe casa playing music with our friend Caroline Quine. But when the day dawned clear and warming and the weather forecasters recanted their earlier prognostications, our two families decided to pursue outdoor adventures.

Our modus in NM has been to take expeditions in search of life birds. As you can imagine, the possibilities get more limited each year. Last year our target bird was the Lewis' woodpecker--a lifer for Julie and a bird I'd only seen twice before (and one of those times was a vagrant bird in Virginia!). We went back to our lucky Lewis' spot again this year and rekindled our acquaintance with this fine species--but there was only one bird, not several as there had been last year. This worried us a bit.

The following day we drove south looking for a good hike and some petroglyphs near Embudo. We never did find the hike or the 'glyphs, but we did drive through several orchards that had trees full of huge red apples. The apples were being eaten by a large number of Lewis' woodpeckers. We needn't have worried.

But back to the life-bird quest.

This year we got ants in the pants to see a northern three-toed woodpecker. It would be a life bird for both of us. For me it would be the last (likely) North American woodpecker to add to my life list. [side note: If some lucky soul in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, or elsewhere can remember to keep their camera ON and lens cap OFF, I might still have one more peckerwood to add, but until then....]

I spent the Wednesday morning before our Thanksgiving Day departure homeward scouring the Web for info on where to find the northern three-toed in New Mexico. I learned that they like burns--places where forest fires have swept through, leaving standing trees and open understory. The most regular spot for our quest bird seemed to be in the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos. The site was known as The Dome Burn. It was in the Carson National Forest--at least 2 hour's drive away from Arroyo Seco where we were staying. One bonus was that Bandelier National Monument was in the same area, so as long as we were making the trek...

Getting the four of us: BT3, Julie, Phoebe, and Liam outfitted, fed, loaded into the car took something like 11 hours. By 11 am we were ready to go. Oops it's time to feed the kids lunch. You know how it goes.

Finding the Dome Burn area took a full two hours. Along the way we had to go through a security checkpoint near Los Alamos, birthplace of nukes. The roads outside of Los Alamos are named for the highlights of the The Nuclear Age: Bikini Atoll Road, Dr. Robert Oppenheiner Road, etc. Thankfully I did not see roads named for Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

As we got into the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos, we could smell the smoke from forest fires. The Dome Burn happened in the 1990s, but intentional burning is still going on throughout this area. Burning the forest to keep it from burning...there is some logic and science in there somewhere. Soon we could see the smoke and even flames on the mountainsides below the road.

Smoke from the burning forest in the Jemez Mountains.

We climbed up and up the twisting mountain road, through the smoke-filled giant pines. It seemed a bit surreal to be driving calmly with other cars on this forest road with fires burning all around.

After following the very precise directions, we found the appropriate dirt road and took it the proscribed distance to the pull-off where our birds should be. The habitat was perfect--a wide open grassy bald with charred snags of fire-killed trees. Stumps from "harvested" timber were everywhere.

While waiting for the birds to appear, I sat on this stump and pondered.

The larger pines survive the fires, the smaller ones succumb. Still, there was ample evidence of life here. Fresh woodpecker drillings, scattered cowpies, horse and ATV tracks, a hiker's lean-to, as well as bits and pieces of trash.

Hiker's lean-to at The Dome Burn area.

Overhead a pod of common ravens croaked their annoyance at our presence. We fanned out and began looking for the woodpecker. It was very quiet and cold here, the sun not strong enough to make much difference. When the wind rose, it cut right through my down jacket.

I thought to try playing the bird's call but my iPod was dead. And I'd forgotten my speakers anyway. So we listened and heard only silence. The only sounds other than the ravens were sounds of Phoebe and Liam and their restless horseplay.

For nearly two hours we walked the burn. I thought I head the bird a couple of times but could never locate it. A feeding flock of pygmy nuthatches and mountain chickadees passed through, the nutties sounding a bit like the three-toed, which got my heart racing.

Pygmy nuthatch.

My feeling that it was only a matter of time before we found the bird (and joy!) now gave way to a rising ache of disappointment, then a taste of desperation. It was time to go. We had only a couple of hours of daylight left and quite a long road ahead of us to get to the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier. I told myself that it was just not meant to be. And, as I've counseled myself (and others) before, once you've seen all the birds, what do you have to look forward to? This would give me a reason to come back to this hauntingly beautiful and lonely place.

The view from The Dome Burn.

We climbed back in the car for the long drive back down the mountains. Along the way we passed newer burns in younger woods. The trees were still charred black with some stumps still smoking. I got a hunch and asked Julie to stop. I heard something. We got out.

There! What's that call?

I mimicked the loud, sweet call note I'd heard--much like a hairy woodpecker's call note. We heard a staccato drum, a woodpecker's territorial business card. A bird flew toward us and over our head, landing, hidden in a roadside ponderosa pine. My heart sank. It looked like a hairy woodpecker--I was expecting something bigger. I trotted up the road to a better vantage point and when I got my bins back on the bird I noticed something right away. Its sides and flanks were barred with charcoal stripes. THAT'S NOT A HAIRY WOODPECKER!

It was our bird--the northern three-toed woodpecker--a female. She called again, hopped up the trunk a few feet, then flew off from whence she came. We had all of 20 seconds to watch her. Julie (with the largest brain in our family) thought quickly and snapped off a few frames of the distant bird. This locked in the ID.

It was a life bird for both of us! Hugs and high-fives all around! Even the kids were happy about it. Sweet!

Northern three-toed woodpecker, female. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

We did make it to Bandelier on time, but only just. I had a close call there. More on that part of the adventure in days to come.

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