Monday, September 19, 2016

The Los Angeles Exotic Birds of Anaheim

While in California to play the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, it was an opportunity to see some species I've so-far missed this year on the California Coast; some ABA, some just for the Life List, but also a handful of exotics I didn't even know I was looking for, one of which was actually on the ABA List.

My first objective was the California Gnatcatcher.  I've been to California enough times, you'd think I would have this on my ABA list.  But I've just not spent enough time in the Los Angels area to figure out where these guys hang out.  This time, with a full morning free to look, I headed out to the Upper Newport Bay at the foot of San Joaquin Hills Road, with hopes that e-Bird wouldn't steer me wrong.

It's a beautiful spot to go birding, and the California Gnatcatchers didn't disappoint.  I heard one before seeing one and within 15 minutes of arriving I had another ABA Lifer for 2016.  In 2015 I added 10 ABA Lifers, down from 15 the previous year, so I know it's getting harder to add Lifers each year without some very targeted travel, including Alaska.

651 for the ABA List, and 383 for the 2016 ABA List

After spending much of the morning exploring the Newport Backbay, I had a little time to scope out a destination for the next day and headed up to the San Juan Wildlife Sanctuary.  I didn't have much time to explore, but I did hear that there were a couple of exotic birds being seen there: Scaly-breasted Munia and Northern Red Bishop, and it as it turned out, the munia is on the ABA List, so I had a destination for the following morning.

I was up early the next morning.  I had to take an Uber to a university parking lot where I picked up my zip car, except this morning my zip car was missing from its parking spot.  I had reserved a Ford Focus, as that's the car I drive at home, but it was not there.  There was a VW Golf, but that was not what I reserved.  I had to put in a call to Zip Car Central where they were sure I was missing something and they even honked the horn of the Focus and had a hard time believing I couldn't hear it.  Eventually they set me up with the Golf and gave me a half hour discount and I was on my way to San Juan Wildlife Sanctuary.  Before I even arrived I was treated to a flyover by not one, but six Elegant Terns.  Wow.  I was at a red light but didn't have time to get the camera out.  I hoped perhaps they would land at the sanctuary, but no such luck.

When I did arrive, I  didn't know exactly where the munia was, so I began my walk along the various trails and was treated to birds at ever turn, including Forster's Terns, along with a great selection of sandpipers, American Avocets, Clark's and Western Grebes, a White-faced Ibis and the call of a Wrentit, the later two new for the year.  I also saw a couple of coyotes but, alas, no American Roadrunner.

It wasn't until I was on the last leg of my walk that I encountered the exotics.  As I was walking by an overgrown grassy field I saw something reddish-orange pop up and vanish just as quickly.  It was the Northern Red Bishop.  Good for the Life List, but not ABA countable.  Next, I encountered a photographer who pointed out the ABA countable Scaly-breasted Munias.  Lots of them, at least 30 by my rough count.  I spent an hour watching and eventually photographing both the bishop and the munias before heading over to Mile Square Regional Park, at the suggestion of another birder.

Female Scaly-breasted Munia

Male Scaly-breasted Munia,(652 for the ABA List):

Northern Red Bishop

After circling the park and the nearby ball field area, I finally found an entrance and it truly is a mile square and lots of places to walk but not the birding bonanza I was lead to believe it was.  Though I didn't find the Bullock's Oriole I went for, I did find Vaux's and White-throated Swifts, and Egyptian Geese, to keep the exotic theme going.  I knew there are some purists, who don't like counting exotic birds, but if the ABA likes them, then that's good enough for me.

My final full morning of birding was spent at La Mirada Creek Park.  Get there early and you're treated to another non ABA exotic, the Pin-tailed Whydah.  There is a male in the park, though I was unable to find it; however I did find the half-dozen or so females from his harem, along with around 20 Scaly-breasted Munia, who seem to have a thriving population.  I also added a Black-throated Gray Warbler and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

Female Pin-tailed Whydah

I would say, given the usual limited time I have for birding on these trips, this was a successful few days of birding the LA area of California.  I was able to add 8 species to the 2016 ABA list, and 2 ABA Lifers, the California Gnatcatcher and Scaly-breasted Munia, giving me 390 ABA + 3 exotics for the year and a ABA Life List total of 652 in less than five years of birding.

Now to see what seabirds I can add in Seattle the next couple of mornings.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Connecticut Warbler in a Pilgram's Court

While staying in Manhattan, Central Park is my best bet for birding.  It was nice in the spring, way too hot and humid in August, but September brings cool breezes and fall warblers.  It was with this idea that I set out this morning looking for what the wind might have blown in.  In particular, I hoped for a best case scenario of a Connecticut Warbler, as my previous two sightings were in the fall, the first one being in Cape May, NJ during my first Big Year nearly 4 years ago to the day, on Sept 8, 2012 at Higbee Beach.

I started off early Tuesday morning, checking out Strawberry Fields, before heading to the Ramble.  Mostly it was Common Yellowthroats and American Redstarts, but I eventually encountered a group that was looking at a female Hooded Warbler.  I spent some time with them and after moving on ran into a young birder who I've seen a couple of previous times in the park and we exchange sightings.  I told him about the female Hooded Warbler and he told me about the Connecticut Warbler he had seen on his way into the park at Pilgrim Hill.  He gave me directions and I headed over there.

Two other birders were already looking for the bird in the bushes below the Pilgrim statue.  The Connecticut Warbler is normally a pretty skulky bird and in this regard it did not disappoint. However, it was occasionally, not just flying above the bushes, but alighting upon some bare branches of nearby trees at eye level.  This gave the three of us a few good opportunities to see and identify it.  However a photo was a bit harder to come by.

Eventually, at least a dozen other birders from around the park, most of them with one guided bird group, showed up and we all surround the bushes and as the bird moved around, most got to see it.  It took a while, but at one point the Connecticut, along with a Common Yellowthroat, came out into the open and took turns landing on the same branch.  I snapped lots of photos and did get a good shot of the target bird.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Birding By GPS: The Good, the Bad and the, sadly, Ugly

Baltimore, Day One: The Bad and the Ugly

There are not many birds view-able right now in the Baltimore area that I have yet to see this year.  As much as I love birding, I love finding new birds better.  So I'm only going for birds new to the year list and at this point. e-bird is my best bet for choosing and finding those missing species.  At times e-Bird has taken me to amazing locations I'd have never just found on my own, and at other times it has taken me places I'd rather have not found.

In the case of my search for a Buff-breasted Sandpiper in the Baltimore area, I chose the closest spot to my starting point in downtown Baltimore, a place called Swan Creek Wetlands.  Seemed easy enough.  GPS directed me to a road that looked promising until I got to signs that said do not enter on penalty of prosecution, etc.  I looked at the map and decided that maybe I was meant to enter on the other side of the "wetland."  There was a road.  There was a little parking area.  There was a "trailhead" strewn with garbage leading into tall grass about a mile from the "wetlands."  I passed.  Only to find out the next day that had I driven into the "Do Not Enter" area I'd have been able go into a building and sign a waver allowing me to view the shorebirds of the Swan Creek Wetlands.  More on that later.

So I had to come up with an alternate plan and had very little time left in my morning bird outing to find somewhere.  I settled on Fort Armistead Park, as it was close by, and found a few fishing piers, also strewn with garbage that, sadly, was likely mostly left by the folks who fish there.  There was also a path through the woods that lead to the roof of some odd abandoned building covered in graffiti and I had to beat a hasty retreat, having only seen a Spotted Sandpiper in my morning shorebird quest.  The rest of the morning was no more productive and it was one of the less satisfying days of birding I've had this year.

Baltimore, Day Two: The Good

So on my second day in Baltimore I was determined to find somewhere to see the "buffy," as one birder I ran into called it.  This time I headed for the nearest sighting close to any sod farm.  Back home in Ontario sod farms are always the goto place in the fall for them.  Here in Maryland the Central Sod Farms on John Brown Rd seemed to be the place to go.  And hard to get lost with GPS directions to a sod farm on a road.

I arrived in good time, had great views of the many sod farms in the distance and as I was setting up my scope for a first glance, with my new MeFoto tripod, a driver pulled over and said, in a charming Australian accent, that he had seen two "buffies"  just up the road past the next house,.  I headed up that way and started scanning, but was only seeing Horned Larks and Killdeer.  Another driver, a guy named Joe, pulled up and started looking with me.  We found an Upland Sandpiper, but any other birds that seemed to be Buff-breasted kept landing behind a ridge way off in the distance.  Joe offered to head a bit further on and check another field while I kept looking and he returned shortly with news of a Buff-breasted just up the road.  I followed him and within minutes we were both scoping a lovely Buff-brested Sandpiper, saving me a trip back to Swan Creek, to which, Joe explained how to gain entrance.

Moral of the story is, I guess, just keep the adventure going.  Sure, sometimes e-Bird and the GPS devices will send you off to places you can never "unsee," but for the most part, to paraphrase Douglas Adams from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, you don't always get where you were going, but often end up where you need to be.  Words I have lived by since I read that book oh so long ago, and which very much apply to most of the birding adventures I've had over the pas the 5 years.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Common Ringed Plover: Big Addition to a Big Year!

On Saturday morning I read an e-mail and watched a video of what was called a "possible Common Ringed Plover."  Similar to a Semipalmated Plover but with a larger and darker ring around the neck and if you look close enough, no webbing between the toes.  Also has a different call, as was evident on Paul Prior's video.  This is a bird who seems to have got lost after summering in Baffin Island.  First Ontario record as well.

The kind of Big Year I'm doing does not, at least during the baseball season, involve chasing rarities around the country or going to Baffin Island to see Common Ringed Plovers. I have to see birds pretty much where I see baseball games.  There have been a few rare birds that have shown up in the greater Toronto area over the summer but I have been on road trips each and every time.  Now a hugely rare bird had shown up in Toronto.  Would it be a one day wonder, while I was in Cleveland this weekend?  Well it was there Sunday as well and I had a fight home that should have had me in Toronto by 7:00pm and at Tommy Thompson park by 7:30 with just enough light to get the bird.

Well, as often happens to me, a flight delay, this time because of high winds, resulted in arrival after dark on Sunday eve.  During the week the park is not open until 4:00pm and Sue and I were going horseback riding Monday during they day, for her birthday, so the timing worked out and we could only hope the plover was still there on Monday afternoon.

After a nice 90 minute ride on Thor, where I also e-Birded 10 species from horseback, we headed to Windermere Basin, where a Red Knot and Marbled Godwit had been seen on the weekend.  With the help of a couple of birders who were already looking, we were able to see the godwit, which was species number 301 for my Ontario Life List.  Luc Fazio was just arriving as we were leaving and he gave us the location of the Red-necked Phalaropes that had also been reported on the weekend, so we headed over to the Tollgate Ponds, along Eastport Drive.  Luc decided to drive over and help us find them and yes, we were able to count the three phalaropes, which was also a new year bird for me.

Finally it was time to return to Toronto and add a huge lifer for both of us.  Yes, one day I plan to be in the Aleutian Islands in the spring or take a trip to Baffin Island in the summer, but for the time being this was my best shot at a Common Ringed Plover.  And although it is a Code 5 in Ontario, it is only an ABA Code 2 bird, so doesn't even show up on the e-Bird's ABA rarities report.

We took our bikes, as it's a 20-25 minute walk in.  We passed other birders walking out who had seen it and when we arrived at Cell 2 there were lots of birders to help point it out to us, including Paul Prior, who discovered the bird, and narrated a video that seemed straight out of National Geographic.

We got the rare plover but also got to see an American Golden Plover, not a Lifer,  but 376 for the ABA Year List.  Great day for shorebirds, including three new Year Bids, that was for sure.

Long View of the Red-Necked Phalarope:

Close views of the Common Ringed Plover, Toronto's Celebrity bird:

ABA: 650  World Life List: 930:

A  Fine Looking American Golden Plover:

Species 377 for 2016,(ABA 376):

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fall Migration Part 1: New York and Ohio

And so the baseball season moves into the final six weeks, as baseball portion of my MLB Big Year heads into fall migration.  Not much was going on migration wise in Ontario, though we did get out to Stradford and the West Perth Wetlands, which is a fancy name for a converted Sewage Lagoon.  Lots of sandpipers but nothing to add to the year list.

I thought Central Park in New York would be pretty good as migration begins.  First, there were almost no birds and the only warbler was a Black-and-white.  Second and even worse, it was not just hot but the humidity outdid Texas.  Word of advice.  Do not go birding in Manhattan in August.  Unless a Code 5 is present, you're only going to, to paraphrase David Letterman, "make your own gravy," you'll be sweating so much.  I'll be back in September and perhaps it will be cooler and less humid with more birds to see.

Next stop, Cleveland and an off day to get a Zip Car and head north to Ottawa NWR and retrace my spring migration route from May of 2015.  First stop was McGee Marsh.  Let me tell you, what a difference a few months makes.  In May the boardwalk is crowded with birders and birds.  In August, if not for the crew repairing the boardwalk, I'd have been the only human on the sight. The lack of humidity was also quite welcome.  Of course, the warbler activity was also lower than the humidity, but I only had one bird in mind, a Prothonotory Warbler.  I had missed them in the spring for the first time in 5 years, and e-Bird reports from McGee Marsh indicated that they were there.  Of course, they were there, as Sue reminded me that they nest in McGee Marsh.  In 2015 we had even seen one building a nest.  I found a handful of them, including a cute pair showing off on the railing of the boardwalk.

I spent the rest of the day just cruising around the McGee Marsh Migratory Bird Center, the Ottawa NWR Walking Trail Woodland and had intended to take a drive on the Wildlife Drive, but it's closed weekdays in the summer and only opens the 3rd weekend of each month.  I walked the parts of the trail that are open to hikers and was rewarded with a Western Kingbird.  I finished off at one of the many "Metroparks" in Ohio, this one the East Sandusky Bay Metropark, looking for a Red-headed Woodpecker.  I didn't specifically find one with a red head, but did find a black and gray juvenile.  I'd have to wait for the next day for a full fledged red-headed adult.

That I found in Forest Hills Park, in east Cleveland, which is not a Metro Park, but a small park with ball fields and a small lake.  As often happens when following GPS directions from e-Bird, I was directed to the wrong side of the park and an entrance that seems like it had been unused for years, if not decades.   I drove up the drive and discovered crumbling asphalt that threatened to flatten all four of my ZipCar tires.  I quickly made hasty retreat and drove around trying to decide if I was just in a bad part of town or completely lost.  As it turned out I had tried to enter on the wrong side of the park and when I did find the proper entrance, it turned out to be a lovely park full of nice people either walking themselves or their dogs.  And it didn't take me long to start hearing the Red-headed Woodpeckers calling and then to find one in a tree not too far from the parking lot.

My final morning in the Cleveland area saw me heading to Edison Woods MetroPark, about an hour north of Cleveland, hoping to find a Ring-necked Pheasant.  No luck with that, and in fact I saw very few birds indeed.  Nice walk, but a bit of a dissapointment.  Spring in Edison Woods, according to the notice boards is the time to be there.

Back home tonight and, has been the case all baseball season long, another rare bird has been reported in Toronto, while I am out of town.  In this case, a Common Ringed Plover at Tommy Thompson Park, a bird that in North America is usually found in Greenland, Baffin Island and as a spring migrant in the Aleutian Islands.  Hopefully it will hang around long enough for me to get back and see it!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Birding In and Around Houston in the Heat of August

I'd love to say that birding the neighborhood parks around Houston was a bonanza of new bird sightings for the year, but alas that was not the case.  In four mornings of profuse sweating I was only able to add five species to the year list.  To be fair, birding in August is pretty slow anyway, and there were not even 20 species seen within an hour's drive of Houston in the past week that I had not yet counted this year.

All that being said, and despite the heat and the oppressive humidity each morning I birded from abut 7:30am to noon-ish, I did see a lot of nice birds and and even added an unexpected Lifer,(though not ABA, yet), a Red-vented Bulbul.

The first morning in, though, I was after a Least Grebe.  I headed to El Franco Lee Park, about a half hour Uber ride from my hotel in Houston,(there were no Zip Cars available nearby that morning).  As soon as I stepped out into the humid morning air, I was dripping with sweat and both my binocular and camera lenses were completely fogged up.  I walked out to the boardwalk and gazebo, where the e-bird reports said the grebes had been seen, and I thought I had seen the grebes but lost them in the fog of my lenses.  I always have my microfiber lens cloth with me, as it is litterally built into my SCOTTeVEST birding vest I wear whenever I'm out in the field.  By the time I got my lenses cleared I had forgotten where I had thought I had seen the Least Grebes and it wasn't until another birder dropped by, on her way to work, to look at the grebes herself, that I was pointed in the right direction, which is exactly where I had been looking when I first arrived.  Great looks at the adults and one of the juveniles with its cute striped head.

The next morning I was able to get a Zip Car, but had to take an Uber to get to it, as the closest one was nearly three miles away.  I headed to Tanner Marsh hoping to find Cave Swallows, but once again found no swallows, but a large contingent of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks instead.  Couldn't even get Fulvous Whistling Ducks.

I next headed over to both Woodland Park and White Oak Park, again a location where perhaps Cave Swallows might be, and made an unusual discovery, certainly one I never expected.  In both parks I found a black bird with a little red under the tail feathers.  The first one I didn't get a good look at and the photo wasn't much to look at so I figured I'd look it up later.  I thought it was likely just a grackle in odd morning light.  WhenI got to White Oak Park, I birded near the bridge looking for Cave but only found, again, Barn Swallows.  I did, however, add Neotropic Cormorant to the year list.

As time was running out and I had to head to the ball park, I was looking at a couple of Kingbirds, listening to their call, hoping to hear Tropical Kingbird, but it was a Western.  However, on the tree right to it, was this big black bird with the red under the tail.  There were no birds in my iBird App that matched in a a Texas search.  Sue suggested that it looked like a vented-"something" so I looked up "vented" birds, and it was a perfect match for a Red-vented Bulbul.  A Hawaiian bird.

However after doing some research and sharing the photo with Susan Billetdeaux from TX RBA, she confirmed that Red-vented Bulbuls are countable in the Houston area as an Established Exotic, just as the Red-whiskered Bulbul is countable in south Florida, say.  But whereas the Red-whiskered Bulbul is on the ABA List, the Red-vented Bulbul has yet to be added.  So a Life bird,(929) and Year bird, but not an addition to my ABA List.

Day three in the Houston area saw me head to David Estates Road Estuary.  A lovely body of water directly across from a garbage dump.  Somewhere near by there were, you guessed it, Cave Swallows reported on e-Bird.  But first, the estuary.  When I got out of the car and saw the water and all the wading birds stretched out before me, on a perfect morning, it made me remember why I love birding.  The view is why I bird.  The places I end up, after driving into the middle of nowhere, trusting e-Bird and GPS directions. It was as close to a Zen moment as I ever get to.  Just me and the birds and, well the cows and cow pies.  And a cat.  Oddly, no bunnies.

I did avoid walking in enough cow pies to spot some Fulvous Whistling Ducks to add to the year list, and then headed back to the bridge where, once again, it was all Cliff Swallows.  I was bound and determined to get Cave Swallows this trip, the final day in the Houston area saw me head out of town to Galveston, in search of both Cave Swallows and a Gull-billed Tern.

This time I got my zip car closer to the ballpark so I could just walk to work after dropping it off.  The drive to Galveston was pretty nice and  on the road to Galveston there is a series of parallel bridges along Red Bluff Rd in Pasadena, and there, at Big Island Slough, I finally found my Cave Swallows.  About a dozen of them flying back and forth across the 2 lane divided highway and under the bridges.  Took a while to confirm they actually were Cave Swallows for a change and even longer to actually get photos.

From there I headed into Galveston and to  8 Mile Rad, which I didn't measure to confirm the distance, in search of a Gull-billed Tern.  Lots of shore birds, herons, one flying and diving tern I had to get a photograph of to identify.  I had hoped I had my Gull-billed Tern, but it turned out to be a Least Tern.  I was running out of time so drove round the different waterways hoping to find my target tern.  No luck but I did find Common Nighthawks lined up on the wires like so many pigeons.  But no Gull-billed Tern.

After that it was off to Kansas City with very limited time to go birding.  I did bird around the river along Ward Parkway downtown, and the Gorman Discovery Center where they have lots of natural gardens and feeders to attract a nice variety of birds.  The only park I had time to get to on Saturday morning was Legacy park about half an hour from downtown Kansas City, but alas I was unable to add any new year birds.

So I head home to Toronto for the next 7 days, with 371 for the year and a trip to the West Perth Wetlands,(really a sewage lagoon), planned for next Thursday, which is my only day off this coming homestead.  West Perth Wetlands is where I saw my first Hudsonian Godwit during my 2012 Big Year.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Dog Days of Birding in Toronto

This week in Big Year Birding:

In August of 2012, in the heat of summer and with nowhere enough water, in Orlando, I set out on a 4 miles hike to find a Fork-tailed Flycatcher.  Not only was I limited to very small sips of water, but my old hiking shoes were giving me severe blisters.  I barely made it out of there on two feet.  You can read about it here:

Back to the present:

Late summer birding in Toronto is, well, not that exciting.  There are, to be fair, lots of cute baby birds around, including young Black-crowned Night Heron at James Gardens and the cutest little baby Cedar Waxing I found at Col. Sam Smith Park.

This time of year in Toronto your best bet is to check out areas where migrating shore birds tend to show up.  One of those spots is Ratray Marsh in Mississauga.  I had, for some reason, not seen a Lesser Yellowlegs this year, so off I went and it was the first bird I saw there.

There we're a few other shorebirds present...

Sue came along on my second visit and found this Semipalmated Plover:

and as fall migration heats up, even more shorebirds will follow, such as Buff-breasted  Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalaropes, Pectoral Sandpipers and maybe even a Hudsonian Godwit.