Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something is watching..

So I realize I haven't blogged in a while, and maybe I should start with what I've been up to for the past few months first, then I'll get to the Mountain Lion sighting (but not by me, unfortunately!).

Starting in June, I've been chasing Yellow-billed Cuckoos all over the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, trying to help add to the woefully little that is known about their behavior, biology and habitat preferences. This much is known: Cukoos are sneaky little buggers. It's a safe bet that when you are tracking cuckoos, they know it. You can dress in camo, hide under a bush, lie still for hours, it doesn't matter. They know. They see you.

One of the stated goals of the project is to radio-track cuckoos in natural riparian habitat, to get a better idea of how to tailor the restoration sites to their needs. So far, the project has over 20 birds with radio-tags on the restoration sites... and 0 on the the Bill Will. Apparently, one of their preferred habitat characteristics on the refuge is a distance of several hundred meters from anything even resembling a passable road. Also, lots of water and dense undergrowth. None of these things make hauling and setting up a 40+ pound mist net setup practical. After several failed attempts, we've shifted our focus to nest searching.

You'd think that would be easy. They nest low to the ground, often a mere 4 meters high. They're big birds, so they're easy to see on the nest, even in the tangle of bushes they like to nest in. Well, that's not the case. Seeing a cuckoo is a rare treat, even for cuckoo researchers. Following one to a nest, impossible. So we awake hours before dawn and sneak into their territories, hope to hear the male on the nest call to the female off the nest, thus giving away the nest location.

Which brings me to the morning of the 24th. 4:10am, hiking out to a lonely spot on the Bill Williams River, to sit in the dark next to a burbling beaver dam spanning the "river". My partner was stationed about 100m upstream, out of earshot because of the beaver dam. At our appointed meeting time I started to head upstream, only to run into my partner coming downstream with a look of terror on her face. A MOUNTAIN LION(!!) had apparently ambled upstream past her, walking within 10 meters of where she was sitting on the bank, and was last seen splashing into some bushes on the opposite bank.. right where she heard the cuckoo we had come out to look for.

After arming ourselves with stout staves and working up our courage, we went back upstream to explore. The cat had apparently passed by me without me having any clue as to its existence, save for a vague sense of unease earlier that morning. While contemplating the likelihood of it still being in the area, I looked up and lo and behold, there was the nest! Satisfied with the days work, we booked it out of there and back to the other half of our crew, who had also found a nest (sans mountain lion). A good day, especially when you add in all the other wildlife we saw, including a bobcat, a gray fox, a kit fox, a beaver and a muskrat!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Always Pack Your Binoculars!

Or, how I almost missed my lifer Yellow-billed Loon.

Let me start from the beginning. For those who don't know, I'm working in Western AZ right now, chasing Yellow-billed Cuckoos around and birding whenever I get the chance. A Yellow-billed Loon had been seen on and off this winter not far from where I live, and was refound shortly after I arrived here.

Apparently well known for frustrating optimistic birders who traveled hours to search for it, I was none the less determined to see it. A few failed attempts and triple digit highs the last few weeks, however, have tempered my enthusiasm to the I'll-just-scan-the-river-as-I-drive-by level.

And even that was fading fast. Don't get me wrong, I still wanted to see it, but it's hard to get excited about standing on the shore of the Colorado River not seeing anything at all bird related, going over scenarios in my head in which I try to convince a highway patrolman that I'm a birder and not some creep ogling girls. Really officer, there's a rare bird down there. Yea, it's probably underneath that boat right now. Yes, the one with all those girls sunbathing..

Which takes me to yesterday, coming back from Lake Havasu City, in which I used my two days off to do absolutely no birding whatsoever. I didn't even bring my binoculars with me. Everyone needs a little bit of a break now and then (actually, that's not true. Even sans binoculars, I still added California Gull to my county list..)

And what should see as I drive by the river, but a man with binos and a camera staring at the river! As I yell at my friend to pull over, I see it. Sitting in the river. Identifiable even without my binos. My lifer Yellow-billed Loon. And somehow, in the 5 seconds it took us to pull over, the man looking at the bird had vanished.

Leaving me staring at quite possibly the only Yellow-billed Loon I will ever see. Without any binoculars. Well, it's clearly a Yellow-billed Loon, I can see the massive upturned yellow bill from where I sit on the bank, the bird casually bobbing up and down in the river not 50 feet away. Probably better looks than some people have got even with there binos.

And then, here comes the birder who first was watching the loon, with a scope! My good luck never ceases! A few quick looks, some pictures are snapped (but not by me, my camera is still broken) and off he goes, hoping for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that I gave him directions to find, as repayment for the temporary loan of his binos. All is well.

And that's that. Back to chasing Cuckoos in the morning and napping the rest of the day away.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A (belated) post about the Big Island

Currently in Arizona, I've decided it's time to update my blog about my last field job, studying birds in Hawaii. The temperature currently hovering somewhere over 100 degrees, reminiscing about Hawaii birds seems way better than doing anything outside at the moment.

So here goes. First up is the ever present and absurdly
common Apapane. Undoubtedly the most common native songbird, there was rarely, if ever, a time when several of these guys weren't cavorting around in the canopy overhead. Sipping nectar from the also-absurdly-abundant Ohia Lehua flowers is their second favorite past time, right behind being unnecessarily sneaky about the location of their nests.

Also locally abundant, but not absurdly so, are one of my favorite birds, the I'iwi. Pronounced Ee-ee-vee (as in beet), because while the Hawaiian language only had 13 letters, they make those 13 letters as confusing as possible. I is pronounced as e, w is pronounced as a v, and 4 vowels in a row are not uncommon. Anyways, there is some debate among leading scientist (by that I mean me vs the rest of my field crew) as to what color these birds really are. The answer, of course, is orange. I mean look at that birds. It's more orange than an orange. You can practically smell it. Well, don't do that, they apparently smell like old canvas. Favorite past times include handing upside down from Lehua flowers with their ridiculously oversized bill designed to reach the nectar of flowers now extinct, squawking raucously and declining steadily. Also, bullying smaller songbirds and refusing to cooperate in our nest searching efforts.

Next up is the spunky Amakihi. Seen at left with some new jewelry, these warbler sized birds specialize in fooling optimistic birders into thinking they are indeed the much rarer critically endangered Hawaiian Creeper. They are also one of the only birds to develop a degree of resistance to avain malaria, along with the Apapane allowing them to recolonize some of the lowland habitats that still retain some native forest, though it's vanishing fast. Among the most curious Hawaiian bird, I'd often find them watching me watching them.

 By far the most coolest extant Hawaiian bird is the absurdly named Akiapola'au. With a beak like a swiss army knife, these birds use their heavy bottom mandible to chisel for grubs in Koa trees, then yank the grub out with their long, curved upper mandible, as demonstrated by the female to the left. Adapted to fill the woodpecker niche, this critically endangered honeycreeper was hit hard by invasive rats, avian malaria and the loss of the old growth Koa forests upon which they rely for food. A captive breeding program, combined large tracts of native forests set aside for their protection, provides hope that they won't go the way of so many other Hawaiian species. They join the
bright red tiny Akepa, the inconspicuous Hawaiian Creeper and the grosbeak like Palila on the list of critically endangered songbirds of the Big Island, all of which are in serious trouble but through the tireless efforts of scientists, are still holding on in the upland rainforests of one of the most unique ecosystems on earth.

Thats all for now, stay tuned for more updates as the temperatures in Arizona continue to preclude anything but sitting in air conditioned comfort.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Island Fever

Ok, so it's been a while...

As a matter of fact, this is my first post about Hawaii, and I'm about to leave in 2 1/2 weeks for the desert Southwest. So I'll probably be making several post about Hawaii over the next few weeks and trying to keep this blog current.

One of the things I love most about Hawaii are the birds. Unfortunately, it's only one of the things I love least about the islands as well. Let me explain. Aldo Leopold said it best in A Sand County Almanac when he wrote "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."
I came across an old Hawaiian saying today.

Lele au la, hokahoka wale iho
I fly away, leaving disappointment behind

And that is exactly what has happened. Before man set foot on the Hawaiian Islands, 128 species of birds called these islands there sole home. Polynesian settlers brought with them change that wreaked havoc, ecologically speaking. About 60 species of birds are now known only from sub-fossils. Captain Cook paved the way for a second round of invasion, bring new changes and aggressive alien invaders and another 35 species were lost forever. About 36 remain, some clinging precariously to survival only in cages, others pushed far into the trackless wilderness and still declining even there. Hawaii is paradise, without a doubt, but to me it's a scarred and lonely paradise. The once extensive rainforests have been logged, grazed, farmed and developed into near oblivion, the remaining patches relegated to the uplands, invaded by exotics and existing only in fragments of intact forest. 

'Anihinihi ke ola
"Life is a precarious position" 

And so my heart is torn. The birds of Hawaii are beyond expectations. Bright red 'Apapane by the dozens flitting through the canopy, joined by flame-orange bossy 'I'iwi chasing them from their favorite trees, wheezy sounding 'Amakihi moving through the understory, flashes of yellow in an otherwise green world. 'Oamo loudly proclaim their annoyance at intruders in their domain, inexplicably shivering their wings every waking moment. Spunky 'Elepaio search the giant treeferns for unlucky insects, unphased by our presence. The proud I'o may even deign to show itself occasionally, soaring high overhead and searching for an easy meal. And if you're lucky, you'll see something truly exceptional, like the 'Akiapola'au, with its top, curved mandible a stark contrasting it's short, squat bottom mandible, joined by the fiery 'Akepa twittering to itself through the canopy, and the elusive Hawaii Creeper creeping it's way up the trunks of the massive Ohia giants, all three species down to a few thousand birds each. And that's it. I've just described all the native forest species one could hope to see on the Big Island, with the exception of the Palila, which doesn't occur in our study site. It gets lonely, sharing the forest with the same few species day after day, month after month. I can't help but mourn for that which was lost, through negligence, apathy and ignorance. 

So it's with mixed feelings I count down the final days here. If I weren't a birder, I could probably live here the rest of my life. I could get used to lounging on the beach, hiking to waterfalls and scrambling across lava flows. I could adapt to the slower pace of life, learn the pidgin, get used to paying three dollars for a box of pasta and $6.00 for a gallon of milk. But I'll never be able to get used to beaches devoid of gulls, endless plains lacking even a single native bird and forests missing the lions share of their former avian glory. And I'm antsy. I've reached the 3 month mark, and I'm looking to the horizon, orienting east and a little bit north, getting ready to move on. I'll be back someday, hopefully soon. There's still hope for the birds that remain, and I'd like to play some small part in preserving them for future generations. 

More to come, hopefully with more pictures and less gloom.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One man's trash (bird) is another man's treasure

Ah, the joys of the traveling birder.

       Here I sit surrounded by suburban sprawl and 12 lane freeways and enjoying some great birding. Being primarily an East Coast birder, I'm visiting family in Pasadena right now and rediscovering western birds. Bushtits and Anna's Hummingbirds flit above heavy traffic and between high-rise apartments. Acorn Woodpeckers store acorns in the palms planted along the street. Exotic parrots screech their way through the neighborhood on their daily commutes. California Thrashers and Golden-crowned Sparrows inhabit the city parks. All treasured birds, rarely (if ever) seen back east, and I see them just walking around the block. And best of all, I can enjoy it all in the comfort of shorts and sandals.

       In a weeks time an even greater treat awaits, for I'll be in Hawaii, soaking up the tropical sun and studying native songbirds in the mountains. This is how winter is meant to be spent.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My biggest year yet!

So, despite having loads of free time and no job for the last month and a half, I've been lazy in regards to updating the blog, so here goes a belated account of my personal best big year of 2010.

A California Condor surveying the land, one of my favorite species of 2010

Up close and personal with a Golden Eagle

          According to Ebird I entered 331 checklists and recorded 477 species, blowing away my previous record of 405 species (2009). The amazing part is that I got paid to see a good number of those species! I worked field jobs in California, Tennessee and New Jersey, with a 3 week long excursion through the southwest providing close to 50 life birds and innumerable memories.

          The year started out strong in January with daily excursions on two wildlife refuges in Southern California while tracking endangered California Condors. The Condors were my overall favorite, spectacular to watch as they fed, played and picked out nesting sites, but numerous other birds captured my interest. Highlights were Loggerheaded Shrikes, Sage Sparrows, Le Contes Thrashers, Ferruginous Hawks and my lifer California Thrasher.

Record shot of my lifer 1st cycle Glaucous Gull
           March and April saw continued forays throughout southern California, up to Monterrey Bay, down to the Salton Sea and out to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park. Life birds continued to pour in, with Lawrence's Goldfinch, Glaucous Gull, Hutton's Vireo and Mountain Quail being some of the most worked for. Mountain Plover, Yellow-billed Magpie, Zone-tailed Hawk, Elegant Tern, Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl and Herrman's Gull, to name a few, were also highlights. I did dip on a few sought after species, especially after high winds cancelled my trip out to the Channel Islands in search of seabirds and the highly local Island Scrub Jay, but that just gives me a reason to come back.

It wasn't all about birds..
          April saw the end of my stint tracking Condors and the start of my most incredible bird-related month ever lived. In 30 days I traveled over 5,000 miles and saw nearly 350 species of birds from California to Tennessee. The first leg of the trip, through the California desert, produced Costa's Hummingbird, Cactus Wren, Scott's Oriole, Phainopepla, and breathtaking views of the desert in bloom after months of El Nino rains. The Salton Sea did not disappoint, with tens of thousands of waterfowl, causing me to wonder out loud if it was indeed possible to walk across the water on the back of all the ducks.
A nest full of Cactus Wrens

Elgant Trogon
Same bird, this time showing off its coppery tail
          Arizona brought me my first encounter with Harris Hawks, Gray Hawks and Zone-tailed Hawks, breath-taking views every time. Flycatchers and sparrows abounded in the desert, winging their way to northern breeding grounds, and then it was time for the meat of the the trip: The sky islands of Southeastern Arizona. My first few hours in Madera Canyon left my exclaiming with joy every time I turned around. Mexican Jay! Bridled Titmouse! Yellow-eyed Junco! Painted Redstart! Birds I had previously only dreamed about flitted through the trees mere feet away. And then in breathless wonder, I spotted it. The Magnificent hummingbird, the largest hummingbird I've ever seen (there are larger, but not in the US). Lucy's Warbler, Olive Warbler, Buff-bellied Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Whiskered Screech Owl, Montezuma Quail, Blue-throated and Violet-crowned Hummingbird continued to delight me as I visited more and more treasured birding locations, but the crown jewel of the trip was the Elegant Trogon. Something like a cross between a parrot and a cuckoo, this pigeon sized green and red and copper bird perched inconspicuously in a low tree held me captivated for nearly an hour.

A Violet-crowned Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a Broad-billed Hummingbird at the Legendary Paton's Yard in Arizona
A Gray Hawk nonchalantly perched on the side of the road. 

Oh to live somewhere where Mexican Jays are feeder birds!
The Chisos Mountains, hogging all the rain.
Lucifer's Hummingbird.
           Reluctantly leaving Arizona behind and promising to return in search of the ones that got away, I forged in West Texas and Big Bend National Park. Picking up Lucifer's Hummingbird at a friendly locals feeders Common Black Hawk at a nest on the bank of the mighty (ha!) Rio Grande, I prepared for the longest hike of my life; a 13 mile round trip hike into the haunt of the Colima's Warbler. The Chisos Mountains are the only place in the United States I could find this large, drab warbler, and it's not a sure bet I'd see one. After a brief glimpse a few miles in, I was finally rewarded at the apex of the trail close to 7,000 feet above sea level with a solid sighting of a singing male directly over my head. It was as if I had entered a whole new
world: Gone was the heat, the sun and the bareness of the desert. This was a land of fog and cloud, rain and mist, moss and flowers. Streams gurgled, rocks towers teetered and the fog was alive with birdsong; Mexican Jays, Painted Redstarts, gnatcatchers and hummingbirds and juncos followed everywhere I went, as if in curiosity of this two legged creature so foolishly intruding upon their domain.
(Mountain) lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

           South Texas was exhilarating and scary and wonderful all at once. Border violence compelled me to skip some spots, but I still managed Muscovy Duck, Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Altimira Oriole, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, and Fulvous Whistling-Duck among others. A Clay-colored Thrush building a nest was a special treat, as was 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks streaming north out of Mexico. Continuing up the coast, I picked up White-tailed Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, and a plethora of shorebirds and songbirds. High Island was my last stop on the trip and it yielded warblers dripping out of the the trees and a chaotic heron rookery with spoonbills and Wood Storks and Great Egrets all arguing for space and doing their best to avoid the alligators cruising the water beneath their nests.
One of my favorite birds of prey, the ever proud Crested Caracara.

A baby gator tried to block my path, but was quickly bypassed.

The Goose Island Oak, the largest tree in Texas!

A female Cerulean Warbler defending her fledgling.
           May and June found me chasing Cerulean Warblers in the mountains of Tennessee, working on a long term study for a grad student at the University of Tennessee. Bay-breasted, Canada, Blackpoll and Magnolia Warblers passed through and Kentucky, Chestnut-sided, Golden-winged, Black and White and Hooded remained to breed. July and August were largely spent indoors fleeing the sun and heat, but a quick trip to the Adirondacks in upstate NY picked up Gray Jay and Common Loon, but no Spruce Grouse or Black-backed Woodpecker (maybe next year).

A busy day of hawk watching.
           New Jersey was my next port of call, working at the Montclair Hawk Watch recording migrating raptors. In addition to all the expected raptors, I was lucky enough to spot a few Golden Eagles, Northern Goshawks and a single Rough-legged Hawk. And you can't spend that much time outside during peak migration without seeing other songbirds, so Philadelphia Vireo, Rusty Blackbird, Bobolink, Pine Siskin and Fox Sparrow rounded out the list nicely. A few trips down to Cape May provided a few more lifers, including Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper and King Eider, and a twitch out to Connecticut landed me a coveted Fork-tailed Flycatcher.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher, about 3500 miles from home.

          Alas, December rolled in and that was the end of serious birding as snow and bitter cold blanketed NY. It was a year that defied all my expectations, and I can only hope all my birding adventures are half as successful as this year was. I don't know that I'll try to break my record again this year, but someday I'll finally break 500 in a year.
The close of 2010 was spent at home, getting reacquainted with my feeder birds.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In which I find out that bird photography is really hard.

A Great Blue Heron flying into the storm.
It's a slow day on the hawk watch, the weather is nice and a stalled front just south of me has stopped migrating birds in their tracks as they were headed south, leaving them tired, confused and searching for food. The result is what's called a fallout, albeit a weak one, in which migrating birds hit bad weather, grow tired and seek whatever food and shelter they can find, often on the ground and without fear of people. 

A few seconds away from being a first prize winner, really!
So it seemed as good a time as any to try my hand at digiscoping. Simply put, it's taking a picture with a digital camera through the lens of a spotting scope. Sounds simple. Focus scope. Hold camera to eyepiece. Take picture. Hope the bird hasn't moved. It's that last one I had problems with. Since there were yellow-rumps everywhere, it should have been a cinch to get a great shot of one. They were flitting all around the platform, landing practically at our feet. And they never sat still more than a few seconds. No problem focusing my binos on them in that time. I could even get the scope on the bird and focused. And by the time I got the camera to the scope, it flew. Re-find, re-focus, and it flys again. I got dozens of empty branches and blurred flashes of bird for every good shot.

Almost perfect..
And then, even when everything lined up, the light was good, the sun at the right angle, the bird chose an opportune spot to perch, fully exposed and with an excellent background, the optimum camera settings (accidentally) achieved... It's never quite what I saw. The spark of life, the little animated movements of the bird, slip through the lens, not quite leaving an imprint. All my pictures look flat, dull, and hazy compared to real life. Imperfections in the glass? A bit too much glare on the lens? Or maybe, just maybe, you had to be there to truly appreciate the bird.