Friday, May 08, 2009

The Swainson's Warbler Trip!

It's always a bit dodgy when you're asked to lead a birding festival field trip that is dedicated to finding one particular bird species. This is exacerbated by the following additional factors:

1. It's a rare bird, known for skulking in rhododendron thickets.
2. Lots of people sign up (and pay money for the privilege).
3. It's pouring rain.
4. It's the last day of the festival and everyone is COUNTING on seeing this bird.

And so it was last Saturday morning when my friend (and festival founder/raconteur) Geoff Heeter and I loaded 12 or so brave and eager souls onto a Ford Econoline van somewhere near the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This was the Swainson's Warbler Trip and it had but one target bird.

As we drove across WV 19 onto a country road that would take us to a spot that had at times hosted a Swainson's warbler, I was already drafting my apology for the trip participants in case we totally dipped out. The rain pounded on the van roof, pouring down like silver over the windshield, visibility nil.

"Well everyone, we tried our best. Some days you get the bird. Some days the bird gets you. Some days you feel like you've been flipped the bird. Sorry we missed it, but that's a great reason to come back next year!"

or this:

"Those Swainson's warblers are harder to find than a working microphone at a Milli Vanilli concert!"

or this:

"If I had a nickel for every time I've missed this bird, we'd be birding from a stretch limo instead of this rattletrap and eating caviar for lunch instead of flat meat."

Little did I know, I was wasting my time thinking up disappointment-softening excuses.

At our first stop Geoff and I heard two distant Swainson's singing along the creek in separate directions. Neither one was close enough to see or to lure in with a taped call. I decided to walk the group down to a nearby bridge while Geoff and Ned Keller got the vehicles.

From the bridge, one singing male sounded lots closer. Then he moved even closer, but was still out of sight in the thick rhodies, 30 yards upstream. I filled Geoff in about this new development and we motioned to the group to stay put while we carefully moved up the road for a better vantage point. Barely 150 feet farther along, I spotted the bird, teed up and singing against the trunk of a giant hemlock. Within seconds I had him in the spotting scope. Geoff beckoned our group forward and we all took turns drinking in this very rare sight. And the male Swainson's warbler sang and sang and preened and sang....

It felt SO great to show more than a dozen birders this cool and hard-to-find bird. It felt even better to locate a bird that was relaxed and singing from a favorite perch on its territory. No audio luring necessary! No trying to get bird watchers onto a het-up, moving bird. Just us, this beautiful male Swainson's warbler, some nice optics, and the rain, still falling down, but completely unnoticed.
Doing the Swainson's Warbler Life Bird Wiggle.

After we all got great looks I realized, in one of those I-could-kick-myself moments that I had ABSOLUTELY NO CAMERA WITH ME to take this bird's photo. No digiscoping rig. No 30D with a 300mm lens. Nope that stuff was warm and dry in the van. Hearing my remorseful cries, Geoff handed me his camera phone. I held it up to my Swarovski spotting scope and here's what I got!

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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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Thursday, March 19, 2009

One of the World's Smallest Raptors

From a distance, it's hard to tell what this bird is.

On my first full day in the Philippines, our group set out early to go back to the Subic Bay area and Hill 394 to try to find some targeted endemic birds. Endemic birds are birds that are found ONLY in a limited geographic area. Thus a Philippine endemic bird species is—you got it—found only in the Philippines.

One such species was perhaps the world's smallest bird of prey: the Philippine falconet. After some nice birding along a trail, we came back out of the forest and located a falconet, perched just where the field guide said it would be, in the top of a dead tree. This Philippine endemic measures just 6.25 inches in length, with a 10 inch wingspan.

My first digiscoped image of the Philippine falconet.

I took a few digiscoped shots, in spite of the limited light. In between scope views, the falconet took off in a buzz after passing insects. They will also eat birds if they can catch them. And as if to prove that size and feistiness do not always come in equal measure, the Philippine falconet has been observed mobbing the Philippine eagle, a bird that is seven times larger.

Enlarged for a better view.

From a distance, with the unaided eye, the falconet looked like a wood swallow perched in the treetop. But a zoomed-in view shows a more shrikelike or raptorlike shape to the head, bill, and body.

Does it look like a fierce raptor now?

It was quite a treat to see this tiny bird. Even though the field guide lists them as being common, I did not see another one during the entire two week trip. Or perhaps I merely overlooked them, but I'd hate to think I was THAT oblivious!

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Photo of the actual white-winged crossbills by Shila Wilson

My sister, Laura Fulton, is the circulation director at Bird Watcher's Digest. She is many wonderful things (cook, numbers cruncher, mom, Wii player—and not in that order, mind you) but she is also a self-described non-birder. Sad but true, such people DO exist, and a few—a very few—even work at BWD.

So it was with a bit of wonder that I stood in her kitchen a few days ago, looking out the window at 50+ white-winged crossbills!

No lie!

Laura noticed them, realized they were something different, and IDENTIFIED THEM. Then she called me to come see them, figuring I'd be interested. Heck yes I was interested!

The last time I saw a crossbill in Ohio was in 1979, when I was in 11th grade! This was a special occurrence, so I called my local birding pals to come see the crossies.

Now I'm wondering if this will be Laura's spark bird?

It's a great thing when an avid bird watcher finds a rare bird. But it's even better when a non-birder finds one, because that's how new bird watchers are made. Contrary to popular myth, new bird watchers are NOT made by the transfer of a virus via a bite to the neck. That's only true for the Transylvania Bird Club.

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