Panama Preview

I just returned from a two week whirlwind birding tour of Panama over spring break. As it was my first time doing a concerted birding trip to Central America, I got a whole mess of lifers. In lieu of a complete retelling, which will be forthcoming, here’s a brief photographic preview.

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Resplendent Quetzal

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Orange-bellied Trogon

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Barred Antshrike

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White-necked Jacobin

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Ontario Winter Roadtrip 2017

Following the great success of a young birder roadtrip to Michigan over the summer, I was chomping at the bit to organize another young birder trip. The opportunity presented itself when fellow Pittsburgh young birder Jack Chaillet and I were both free over President’s Day weekend. My nemesis bird, black-backed woodpecker, sat tantalizingly just 7 hours north in Canada’s boreal forest so we set our sights for the Great White North.

As soon as I got off school on Wednesday, we loaded the car and set out. We made a brief stop in northern PA for a Ross’s goose which we dipped upon, but the thought of snow and winter finches drove us ever northwards and we ended up eventually in Amherst, New York where we stayed the night.

The next morning the real birding began. We pulled into Goat Island in Niagara rearing to go and with one target in mind: gulls. A quick drive around the island showed that one side in particular, around the Three Sisters Islands, had a large concentration. We parked the car and commenced scanning. Quickly we picked up a fair number of lesser black-backed gulls with a few Iceland’s and a single glaucous mixed in with the ubiquitous ring-billed and herring. However, the most exciting find was a single Thayer’s gull (with a second Thayer’s candidate)! A lifer for both of us! Perhaps more exciting for Jack who was becoming increasingly obsessed with boosting the trip list, a group of wigeon wandered by, a species we were worried about missing during the trip.

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Thayer’s Gull Candidate

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

Electrified by the white-winged wonders around us, but with a number of other targets to get that day, we headed for the border and crossed into Canada.

Our first stop across the border was in Burlington at the Burlington Shipping Canal. This is a spot I’ve stopped at during some early trips to Ontario and has proven to be a reliable spot for king eider. However, those large sea ducks hadn’t been reported for a while and we worried that they were no longer there. A couple hours of searching in fact proved us right about the eiders, but the stop was more than worth it anyway, if only because of the long-tailed ducks. These elegant sea ducks congregate in huge numbers at the canal and we were afforded brilliant looks.

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Long-tailed Ducks

By this point it was getting late enough in the day that we were getting anxious to be moving along, so we set our GPS due north and started driving.

However, we couldn’t resist one more birding stop for the day, this time at a spot for snowy owl. Of the number of locales in the area holding snowy owls, our essentially random choice of one proved to have been unknowingly good, for we had two of the majestic arctic birds perched just across the road from one another. A small flock (flurry?) of snow buntings was an added bonus.

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Snow Buntings

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Snowy Owl

That night we stayed in Huntsville, the town adjacent to the famous Algonquin Provincial Park. Our plan was to bird in the park for the next two days, aiming on snagging boreal specialties, and of course black-backed woodpecker. The woodpecker is a bird that had evaded me far too many times before. I had looked for them with no success twice in Ontario, once in Minnesota, and once in Michigan. Every time had involved a huge number of hours spent in the field desperately stalking a bird that would never appear. The most recent attempt, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was particularly frustrating as I and a couple other young birders spent 5 fruitless hours along one road being slowly devoured by horse flies and pursuing every woodpecker drum we encountered, going crazier and crazier with every hairy or sapsucker that fooled us. Understandably, I did not plan on leaving Ontario this time without my much desired nemesis.

The first day netted us some incredible birding. White-winged and red crossbills abounded and we were able to net common redpoll and pine grosbeaks, both uncommon species this year. The flock of up to 100 evening grosbeaks at the visitor center feeder swept the finch for us and incredible looks at boreal chickadee gave us one of our top targets. The unseasonably warm weather which made the birding much easier and more comfortable than it usually is in Algonquin in February was an added (although rather ominous when climate change is kept in mind) bonus.

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Boreal Chickadee

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Pine Grosbeak at First Light

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White-winged Crossbill

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Red Squirrel

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Grey Jay

However, throughout the day, black-backed woodpecker remained elusive, with only the occasional peeled tree hinting at their presence. We went to sleep that night early, planning on awaking early to be out at a bog preferred by the woodpecker at first light. I don’t know what Jack was thinking but I personally planned on searching exclusively for the woodpecker for as long as it took.

We arrived at the bog while the morning was still crisp and still. White-winged crossbills sputtered and chipped in small flocks overhead, ravens croaked occasionally, and a surprise American crow called. However, the main thrill came when we reached the prime stretch of bog and heard, distantly, the drum of a black-backed woodpecker. I froze as the adrenaline began to course, but the bird was too distant to be of much use. As I strained my ears to hear it again, another sound caught my ear. The distinctive, hollow “pik” of a black-backed, much, much closer this time. Just off the road in fact. We walked as fast as we could on the slick, icy road over to where it had called. Sure enough, the woodpecker appeared as if on cue, flying to land on a nearby tree! Success! Nemesis conquered! The adrenaline was by this point through the roof and I excitedly followed the bird as it foraged around the bog until, ultimately, it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

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Black-backed Woodpecker!!

We happily returned to the car, overjoyed with what we had seen. We had no idea that our day would end up getting even better.

We decided to stop at the visitor center to check the sightings board before going birding again and saw, much to our excitement, that there had been two spruce grouse reported from Spruce Bog not 15 minutes before. We suspected that they had moved on but figured better safe than sorry, so headed out. We could not have been more wrong. When we arrived at the trail, a crowd of maybe 20 photographers were all clustered around one side of the trail, shutters clicked rapidly. We walked over and sure enough, there were two spruce grouse, not more than five feet off the trail!

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Spruce Grouse

Our good luck wasn’t over as we were later even able to find a stakeout American marten, a much desired mammal for both of us. These arboreal mustelids often attend garbage cans around campsites in the park and one in particular was extremely reliable around Mew Lake.

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American Marten

Algonquin Park had come through for me once again! This park has never failed to disappoint me and its magnificent scenery, winter stillness, logistic ease of birding, and fantastic wildlife have made it a favourite place of mine to bird. This trip cemented that impression even more; how can you complain about getting a nemesis?

That evening, having gotten all our targets plus some in the park, we left the beautiful boreal forest behind and headed for Ottawa for our last day of birding.

In Ottawa we met up with an old young birder friend of mine, Will von Herff and turned the reigns of the itinerary over to his local knowledge. He brought us first to a location hosting a great grey owl. This northern owl staged a huge irruption into southern Canada this winter and this was one of the many spots in the area from which they were being seen. It turned out to be a reliable spot too, as we picked up the owl within literally 30 seconds of arrival.

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A Majestic Owl next to a Less Majestic Telephone Pole

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Our next stop was for a potential lifer for me, only my third of the trip, grey partridge. Normally scarce and hard to find around Ottawa, a covey had been hanging around a housing development west of the city. Much as with the owl, they turned out to be extremely reliable and the covey was found by Jack, taking shelter in the lee of a house, within 10 minutes.

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Grey Partridges

With all three of my lifer targets for the trip (Thayer’s gull, black-backed woodpecker, and grey partridge) in the bag, I was in a rather good mood as we moved to the next spot, a waterfowling location along the Ottawa River. There we picked up our two targets, Barrow’s goldeneye and a continuing harlequin duck (both lifers for Jack) and were able to enjoy good looks at the ubiquitous common goldeneye.

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Barrow’s Goldeneye

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Harlequin Duck

It was particularly nice to get good looks at the Barrow’s as Ottawa is a good spot to get direct comparison to common goldeneye. The difference in head shape in particular really stands out in direct comparison!

A flock of Bohemian waxwings just over the border in Quebec got us the last of our targets, all before noon(!), and we were able to spend the rest of the day relaxing and just having fun birding around, a nice reprieve after a few hectic days.

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Snowshoe Hare

The next day we said goodbye to Will and then to Canada in quick succession as we crossed back into the US at the magnificently beautiful Thousand Island Crossing and headed back to Pittsburgh.

In the course of 5 days we had cleaned up Ontario, sweeping all our targets except king eider, and seeing some fantastic birds! Another successful birding trip down.

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Vagrants for Days…

The past week has been pretty crazy (and exhausting) bird wise. It all started last Sunday when I was able to chase a slaty-backed gull that had been found a few days prior at Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie. As it was a second record for the state and would be a lifer for me, I was eager to find it.

I arrived just after dawn and had hopes that the bird would be found promptly by the large group of birders present. However, it was not to be and the roosting gulls began to disperse with no sign of the gull. Consequently, I was destined to spend the next 8 hours searching the whole park for the gull, a task made extremely difficult by the fact that, due to a tragic string of misfortunes, I had no scope with me.

Happily, in those many gullless hours, I was able to see a whole array of other interesting birds to keep me occupied and away from despair in the freezing temperatures.

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Common Goldeneye. Honestly, any day that you get to see and hear 100s of goldeneye is a good one in my book.

 

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American Tree Sparrow

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Common Redpoll, a nice bird for PA.

Of course, there were loads of gulls as well; namely hordes of great black-backed, a scattering of lessers, and a single Iceland; the latter being my first of year.

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Iceland Gull

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

Eventually, as it was very close to going dark, after 10 hours of searching, a group of birders found the gull. It was ridiculously distant, but through a scope the views weren’t bad at all. And of course it’s pretty hard to complain with a bird as cool as this one.

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Slaty-backed Gull!!

I thought that was going to be the end of my rare bird chasing for a while. I was proven wrong pretty quickly however when news of an absolutely insane bird got out. The bird in question was a black-backed oriole in Berks County, a first record for the ABA if accepted. There is a good bit of mystery surrounding the origin of this bird, which is traditionally bound to central Mexico, but that is neither here nor there for this blog post so I’ll just leave it at that.

Of course, despite my being rather tired after a long week and having looming flu symptoms, I couldn’t not chase this bird, so I set out Sunday morning at five with a couple other young birders.

The chase itself doesn’t make too good of a story: we drove four hours plus some birding stops, arrived at the house hosting the oriole, waited 15 minutes until the bird showed, freaked out with excitement, photographed, freaked out some more, and just generally basked in its glory. I mean… it’s a freaking black-backed oriole in Pennsylvania. Who wouldn’t get excited?

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Black-backed Oriole

Unfortunately, my flu got really bad as we were leaving the oriole spot so we had to cancel our planned birding stops for the afternoon and retreat back to Pittsburgh, whereupon I promptly fell asleep and haven’t gotten out of bed in two days. Did chasing the oriole make this horrific flu strain worse? Probably. Was it worth it? Totally.

Getting a second state record and a first ABA record in a 7 day span, pushing my ABA list to 604, is really not bad at all. Frankly, it’s been a pretty good week.

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Crossbills in Pennsylvania!

Nomadic winter finches are always fun. Their wandering habits, often beautiful colours, and northern allure make them a huge draw for birders. Aside from the usual siskins and purple finches, winter finches are usually almost entirely lacking from Pennsyvlania which makes them even more appealing to birders when they do show up. The last big irruption of finches into the state was the winter of 2012-2013 when both crossbills en mass and smaller numbers of evening grosbeaks and common redpolls covered the state. Since that winter however, reports have been few and far between. However, a couple weeks ago, a flock of red crossbills were found foraging at the relatively unknown Trough Creek State Park in Huntington County, Pennsylvania. Naturally, this drew a large number of birders and one Sunday I couldn’t help but give chase.

Gathering a group of young birders from Pittsburgh consisting of CMU student Sameer Apte and UChicago student back on break Jack Chaillet, I headed east towards the mountains and the crossbills they coveted. We got lost a few times in a couple different places but eventually did arrive in Huntington County. However, before we even got to the crossbill spot, we couldn’t resist stopping on a bridge crossing Raystown Lake (which Jack informed me was the largest lake entirely in Pennsylvania). Below and around the bridge was pretty much the only area of open water of the entire lake and consequently it held a solid group of common mergansers, 88 in all. However, even such a large number of mergs couldn’t keep us occupied for long, as the thought of finches drove us further down the road.

Arriving at the crossbill spot, we got sidetracked once again, this time by a huge concentration of rather friendly red-breasted nuthatches tooting away happily. Trough Creek seemed to be a place of avian abundance as we quickly tallied about 15 nuthatches and large flocks of blue jays and slate-coloured juncos passed through, with single yellow-bellied sapsucker and brown creeper to boot. The red-breasted nuthatches in particular drew our attention as a species not commonly seen in Allegheny County. Red-breasted is the far superior nuthatch to white-breasted we all quickly decided.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Making life easier for us, we ended up not even needing to look for the crossbills as we heard some flight calls coming overhead while still admiring the nuthatches. Soon we spotted two birds in the tops of some spruces. However, these quickly flew off. A bit of wandering and birding later and a flock of about 20 descended from the heavens upon the spruce cones. Over the next half hour we watched the flock move from tree to tree cracking open cones for the seeds inside.

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Unusual red crossbill foraging behavior — they were creeping along like nuthatches and eating something along the tree limb

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Red Crossbill

Better yet I was able to get some recordings of the birds calling to identify them to type. Initially after looking at spectrograms, I was pretty sure the birds were Type 2s. However, I emailed the recordings and spectrograms to Matt Young who studies crossbill types at Cornell, who identified them as likely being the very similar Type 1 since, among other reasons, the highest point in the calls falls above 2.5kHz, they show faint upticks, and Type 1 is the most common in the Appalachians.

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Red Crossbill Spectrogram (http://www.xeno-canto.org/350977)

Altogether quite a good morning of birding, spending some quality time in a lovely spot I hadn’t birded before and with some even lovelier finches.

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A Sunday Afternoon Brant

A few days ago, a couple birders found a brant on Conneaut Lake in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. There has been a recent influx of brant to the region in the past couple weeks with some being seen as flybys in Ohio, a flyby flock in Erie, PA, and a single bird which set up shop on a lake just over the border from me in Ohio, so this newly found bird fit the trend well and when it was found during the school week, I started to make plans to give chase this weekend. Around the same time however, news broke that the brant which had been hanging around in Ohio, had been shot by hunters, who had possibly heard of it from birding listservs. So it was with a renewed sense of urgency that I started the two hour drive north on Sunday. It turns out I needn’t have worried.

Within 60 seconds of arriving at the lake, the goose had been spotted, and it spent the next half hour or so grazing and paddling around within 20 feet of me, seemingly not caring about anyone or anything. A not so subtle reminder that one of the few things better than seeing a rare bird is crushing one.

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Juvenile Brant (note the white edging on the tertials)

Most of the rest of the day was spent getting my duck fix at some nearby ponds and lakes. Despite the double digit duck species and passing 100 species for Crawford County, the post-brant highlight was watching the acrobatics of 40 or so Bonaparte’s gulls as they fished. This time of year, when Bonies come through, is one of my favourite parts of migration. I literally will never get tired of photographing the tiny gulls and I seem to take way too many photos every time. Today I took a couple hundred. Naturally.

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Bonaparte’s Gull

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Tale of Three Vagrants

For the past week I have been in Florida briefly before heading down to the Dominican Republic day after tomorrow (much more on that later). While it has not been a birding trip, I have had a bit of time to do some birding. This has been highlighted by a couple of vagrant chases which have once again proved the great birding potential of Florida.

The first chase was for the two vagrants which have been seen recently at Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys. The two birds there have been black-faced grassquit (code 4) and, even better, a zenaida dove (code 5). I pulled into the State Park a bit after dawn. It took me a couple of minutes to reorient and figure out where I was going as I had last been to the park last year for the Key West quail-dove being seen there.

Even when I figured out the appropriate trail to take to the dove, it took me a while to find the exact location. Eventually, half an hour and a yellow-crowned night-heron later, I found the pink flagging marking the spot for the zenaida, and accompanying birder looking for the bird.

Tragically however he had not seen the bird yet and gave me the news that it was apparently a somewhat challenging bird to find. The lack of doves in general (except for a common ground-dove which kept popping everywhere) didn’t reassure me much. After a while where the only bird to emerge from the brush was a grey catbird, a friend of the birder present called to say that she had located the grassquit at the campgrounds. Figuring the dove might not show and that I could return for it later, I decided to get the guaranteed bird first (after all, a bird in the hand is reputed to be worth a zenaida dove in the bush).

This turned out to be a fruitful decision for I could hear the grassquit calling as soon as I walked up to the campsite it was being seen at. Within ten seconds, I saw it too. Over the time I watched it, it gave fantastic views as it flitted around, foraging on both sides of the road. At one point, it even came within 5 feet of me. One of the easiest to locate and most confiding ABA Area rarities I have ever seen.

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Black-faced Grassquit

Check! and back to the dove. However, before the dove showed itself, I had to return to Key Largo to check out of my hotel which I had optimistically  hoped I would have been able to see both birds before having to do. Some hurried packing and a shot of Cuban coffee later, I was back at the park.

In the time I had been gone, a number more birders had gathered at the dove spot. They informed me that the group of nonbirders which had been walking not far in front of me had flushed the bird which had been foraging on the trail. In other words, I had missed it by 15 seconds. Better people than I would have been overwhelmed with shadenfreude. I however was not so entertained and settled down to wait, more determined than ever to locate the thing.

Slowly the birders began to trickle away until there was only 1 left. After about 2 hours, they do left. However, on their way out, they spotted a dove sitting in the brush. They assumed it was just a mourning but they called me over to look at it anyway. Sure enough, there was the zenaida dove staring at me, unconcerned, just off trail.

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Zenaida Dove

How little the bird seemed to care about the two birds staring at it gave me a great opportunity to study and sketch my first code 5. However, the Florida heat eventually overcame my fragile, cold-loving British body and I beat a hasty retreat; back to the shade.

As an aside, while I was watching the dove, a couple got engaged on the beach behind me. I felt a bit bad for them having a birder right there staring into the underbrush and a shutter loudly clicking during what was supposed to be one of the most perfect moments of their lives, but I guess that’s what you get when you propose where there’s a code 5!

The next day, I, now relaxing on a beach in Boca Raton got word that a Cuban pewee had been found at a park on Key Biscayne, only an hour south of me. As this was only the fifth ABA record I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to chase. Bumming a ride off of my sister, I headed south.

The bird turned out to be about as difficult to find as the grassquit had been. A number of birders were already on sight and had the bird in their sights. Naturally I couldn’t resist observing the rare flycatcher and taking about a thousand photos as it hawked for wasps within a matter of feet from the admiring crowd.

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Cuban Pewee (note particularly the long bill and white crescent behind eye)

In the hour or so I watched it, it called once giving a series of three “pip” notes and caught a number of insects. An absolutely cracking bird and one which I will likely not see again for a while. Unfortunately, it would not be seen again after that day, making me extremely thankful for having been able to chase it when I did, for I could easily have missed it.

Already, this trip is hard to beat with two code 5s and a code 4 alright being spotted, but I still have a day left in the peninsula of sun and with it comes a good chance to make this trip even better. Stay tuned for more from Florida as well as Hispaniola!

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More Fun in the Alpine (Camp Colorado Day 3)

Lifers Denoted by Bold

My doormates and I woke up earlier than the rest of the group the next morning and went out with the goal of finding dusky grouse. Outside it was still raining, but it looked as if it might be starting to clear away; a good sign for us as it gave us a glimmer of hope of making it up to the tundra that day.

Silently as we tried to fully wake up, we trudged over to the area of the property where we had seen Williamson’s sapsucker the day before. We had been told the night before that the best way to find grouse was to move slowly through good habitat and scan for movement. We followed these instructions to the letter, fanning out through the forest and paying close attention for our quarry.

I also made use of the opportunity of birding with a small group to make some recordings of bird song. The rain kept a lot of birds down but I got some nice recordings of a few western species.

A large buck mule deer made an appearance as we hiked through the sage patches lining the hills, and we spotted a mountain chickadee nest accompanied by a pair of birds singing persistently over the sound of the nearby creek, its banks swollen with days of near-continuous rain.

The surprise bird of the morning was a belted kingfisher which we heard calling as it flew along the entrance road to the YMCA; a bird I had never really thought about being at such high elevations.

We had to be back at the dorms for breakfast however, so we soon had to turn back and make our way in that directions, unfortunately without the grouse we had hoped for but pleased with what had been a very enjoyable early morning jaunt.

Arriving back at the dorms, we found that we would not be going to the tundra that day due to the rain and would instead be doing a bit more alpine birding. After a quick breakfast, we set out to do just that.

Unsurprisingly given the weather for the past couple of days, it was raining when we arrived at Endovalley in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, we were undeterred and quickly were rewarded for our efforts with a red-naped sapsucker nest and the first western wood-pewee of the trip.

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Western Wood-pewee

Beginning to hike, we got views of Stellar’s jay, another first for the trip, and well as more views of red-naped sapsuckers and great looks and audio of a male Macgillivray’s warbler.

This area of the park had apparently been heavily flooded a few years back and the effects were obvious as the trail was still a bit washed out and we would pass the occasional large boulder, failing to blend in in the lowland valley.

The trail was rather short and eventually ended at a large waterfall. It looked like perfect habitat for an American dipper and indeed it was as one of these lead-coloured birds soon bobbed into view. A Townsend’s solitaire and “western” warbling vireo nest were other highlights.

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Warbling Vireo Nest

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Townsend’s Solitaire in the Rain

Driving to another spot in Endovalley, we could see large stands of aspen in the meadows bordering the road. This is the habitat that is typical of this portion of the park and brings a unique suite of birds with it. The swathes of aspen are particularly vital for cavity nesting birds such as red-naped sapsuckers and tree swallows. Proof of this was quickly discovered when we got out of the vans at our next stop as nests of both these species were soon found. Lincoln’s sparrows and Macgillivray’s warblers sang in the background as we birded our way through a few aspen groves. Wilson’s warblers at a nest were good to see, as was a song sparrow and tree and violet-green swallows sitting side-by-side, making for great comparison.

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Red-naped Sapsucker

However, the real highlight of the morning was to come on the drive out of Endovalley. The silence of the vans was broken as Jack Chaillet, another camper from Pittsburgh, called out that he had seen a grouse. Panic quickly broke out as the van slammed to a stop, everyone craned their necks to where Jack was directing, the other van was radioed with what had been seen, and the campers all prepared for a hasty exit from the van.

Sure enough, when we got out of the van, we spotted a female dusky grouse along the roadside. However, even better than just seeing this great bird was that it had 6(!) chicks with it!!

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Dusky Grouse

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Dusky Grouse Chick

The next twenty minutes of so were incredible as we watched the grouse family slowly meander its way across the slope, not seeming to care that more than 20 pairs of eyes were staring at it and that an ungodly number of camera lenses were pointing at it. An out of place yellow-bellied marmot and a heard-only flyover Clark’s nutcracker sweetened the deal a bit more.

However, we couldn’t watch the grouse forever (much as we would have wanted to) and had to move on. Before pulling out however, a passer-by told us that they had just seen a moose in the meadow across the road from us. This would have been a great mammal to see and so we all hiked back in the direction in which they pointed us. However, we saw no sign of the moose and we decided that startling an adult moose wasn’t the best idea so we quickly gave up.

Still high off of dusky grouse, we arrived at our next stop, Beaver Meadows, where we were going to try for American three-toed woodpecker after our dip the day before. The rain began to pick up again after a brief lull as we unloaded the vans and began to walk down the trail, a bad omen for woodpecker success. The three-toed was indeed a no-show but two Williamson’s sapsuckers and a beautiful mountain bluebird made up for it a bit (not that we could be disapointed after the grouse show).

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Williamson’s Sapsucker

After returning to the YMCA and eating a much-needed lunch, we were permitted by another brief break in the rain to go down to the banding station on the property where Scott Rashid was banding. Banding is always good to see and this demonstration was particularly so as it was the first time I have seen interior western birds in the hand. The cordilleran flycatcher, band-tailed pigeons, uinta chipmunks, and Cassin’s finches around the banding station didn’t hurt much either. However, it was a bit overshadowed when, just after the banding was finished, a northern goshawk came ripping through the feeding station and landed in a bush just past it. The camp exploded into chaos as shouts of “Goshawk!” went up and everyone ran to get a look at it perched (those who had missed the one on the first day were especially anxious to get a look). However, the bird didn’t stay still for long and quickly launched itself off its perched and careened into the woods.

Not to be beaten that easily, a number of us took off at a full sprint (a challenging feat while carrying a ten-pound camera) in the direction which it had flown, hoping to catch it as it exited the woods. However, arriving, slightly out of breath, at the far end of the woodlot, we saw no sign of the massive accipiter. We fanned out from there, determined to relocate it and began to search the woods. After maybe 5 minutes, a camper gave out a shout that he saw it in flight and sure enough it burst out of the forest and gained altitude, heading up over the buildings of the YMCA, a couple of American crows not far behind.

And that was the way in which we rounded out the third day of Camp Colorado, a day which, despite our initially lower expectations, ended up being one of the best days of the camp.

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Cleaning up South Florida Specialties — March 2015

Lifers Denoted by Bold

Over the past spring break, my family went down to spend a week in South Florida. Having been to Florida twice before, I had seen a lot of the specialty birds to be found there. However, there were still some that evaded me and my goal was to find as many of those remaining needs as possible in the course of a week.

The first part of the trip was to be spent in the Northern Keys. However, on the drive down through the peninsula, we stopped at Lantana Beach Preserve for the continuing La Sagra’s flycatcher. It was a very worthwhile stop for after about an hour of searching in the hot Florida sun, we were able to locate the flycatcher and got spectacular views of it almost diractly over the trail. Unfortunately I had forgotten to turn my camera off the last time I used it so when I pulled it out to get cracking photos of the rarity, I discovered to my horror that it was dead. However, I was able to get a brief amount of audio of the flycatcher’s distinctive call (http://www.xeno-canto.org/217720).

Arriving in Key Largo, the first bit of birding I did was to try to find monk parakeets at a colony at the Marathon Keys Middle School. I was quickly able to locate the nest (many of which located directly underneath an osprey nest) and get good views of my lifer monk parakeets.

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Monk Parakeet

A couple of scissor-tailed flycatchers were perched on some nearby telephone wires as well.

One of the undisputed highlights of the trip was visiting Dry Tortugas National Park. This was the one spot in Florida where I could get the most lifers and is a spot which I had been wanting to visit for a very long time. We left on the Yankee Freedom ferry early in the morning from Key West and I eagerly sat upon the deck hoping for seabirds. It was pretty quiet except for a few magnificent frigatebirds which were circling over. However, we did pass a brown booby, a lifer for me. As we got closer to the Tortugas, we began to see more birds, as a quickly got my lifers of both sooty tern and brown noddy, as well as decent looks of masked boobys at their breeding colony.

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Masked Boobys

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Sooty Tern

As we approached closer to the islands, a huge cloud of terns became present in the skies above it. This cloud slowly became louder and louder as we got closer and closer and the screeching of the terns would become a constant sound while we were at the park.

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Brown Noddy

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Magnificent Frigatebird

Disembarking the ferry, I was able to cash in on another life bird while on the islands, a migrant cave swallow. The whole time on the islands was really an amazing experience and something which probably deserves its own blog post at some point.

Back in the keys, I spent a good deal of time searching for the Key West quail-dove which had been continuing at Long Key State Park. Despite a huge amount of time investing trying to track down the bird, I was unsuccessful.

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Hermit Crab at Long Key State Park

After that we headed up to the mainland and planned to spend the next couples of nights on the gulf coast. On the way across the state, I was happy to see some of the feral Muscovy ducks which are now countable.

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Muscovy Duck

In west Florida, I was able to do some of the greatest birding of the trip as I had the opportunity to go with a group into Stormwater Treatment Area 2 to look for the American flamingo flock which had been wintering there. We were very successful and the flamingo flock was rather cooperative, giving amazing looks at this incredible species to see in the ABA Area. We also were able to see snail kite and purple swamphen, two more birds I had missed on previous trips to Florida.

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American Flamingos

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Snail Kite

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Fulvous Whistling-duck

The next few days were spent with little birding but I did find a leucistic royal tern in amonst a flock of Sandwich terns as well as a Wilson’s plover, another lifer.

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Leucistic Royal Tern

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Sandwich Tern

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Wilson’s Plover

The next bit of birding I did was in Everglades National Park, a spot I have birded often in the past. My main target here was shiny cowbird, but I was unable to locate this specialty, a bird which would go down with the quail-dove as one of the great misses of the trip. However, I was able to see a small family of king rails as well as getting amazing looks at the other great birds which make the Everglades such a special place.

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King Rail Chick

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Great Crested Flycatcher

After that, my sister and mother had to head back to Pittsburgh but my father and I decided to stay for two more days of intense birding and then drive back up the east coast.

This turned out to be a brilliant decision as the next two days would hold some amazing birding. To start, we headed to Green Cay and Wakodahatchee Wetlands near Miami. Here we found Nanday parakeetsleast bittern, black-bellied whistling-ducks, limpkin, as well as a host of other great birds. We also ran into ex-big year record holder Sandy Komito which was really cool as well.

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Tricoloured Heron

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Blue-winged Teal

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Prairie Warbler

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Purple Swamphen

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Racoon

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Black-bellied Whistling-duck

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American Alligator

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Blue-winged Teal

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Blue-winged Teal

After that, we headed north to Jonathon Dickinson State Park to try to find Florida scrub-jays, a species which had somehow avoided me every other trip down to Florida. However, a majour storm rolled in as we were arriving and kept the jays quiet (though this is supposedly a guaranteed spot).

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The next day we focused on Miami exotics, the last group of birds I needed as lifers in Florida. We started at the Kendall Hospital where we had a few flocks of red-faced parakeets. We next moved onto some neighbourhood streets in the area where I was extremely happy to find a red-whiskered bulbul.

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Red-whiskered Bulbul

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White-crowned Pigeon

Heading on, we stopped at Fairchild Botanical Gardens where we were found an Egyptian goose among the plants.

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Egyptian Goose

This strange bird was certainly a trip highlight as it sat along the shore of a pond screaming softly before lifting off and flying away.

Our last exotic that we chased that day was spot-breasted oriole, one of the hardest to find. However, after looking at a number of spots, we eventually located two at Spanish River Park, a great way to wrap up a great run of exotics.

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Spot-breasted Oriole

Another stop at Wakodahatchee yielded little new except for many more great photographic opportunities and we quickly moved on to Jonathon Dickinson SP again to try for scrub-jays.

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Purple Gallinule

However, as with the day before, storms moved into the area and shut down our chances with Florida’s only endemic. Unfortunately we had to move north too, needing to head back to Pitsburgh. However, not all was lost as we set it up to bird the next morning at Ocala National Forest, a legendary spot for jays.

The national forest turned out to be an amazing spot and we were able to do some great birding in a very pretty atmosphere. However, the undeniable highlight were the Florida scrub-jay flocks which we were able to see often during our time there. This is a bird that I have been wanting to see for a while and I was very relieved to FINALLY see them.DSC_8031(1)DSC_8070(1)

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Florida Scrub-jay

And with that, we headed back to the north, very satisfied with an extraordinarily successful trip during which I had successfully cleaned up most of my remaining Florida needed specialty birds.

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Western Kingbird — Carbon County, PA

A few weeks ago, I was able to chase a continuing western kingbird in Carbon County, PA. This was a great state lifer for me and a really great bird to see in the state. While I haven’t found time to do a whole blog post about it, I can at least put up a few photos of it.

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Franklin’s Mania 2k15 — PA Edition

As any birder in North America who hasn’t been living under a rock should know, last weekend saw a massive invasion of Franklin’s gulls to the east of a scale not seen since 1998 (meaning I was 1 month old the last time something like this happened). Saturday November 15th produced a huge number of Franklin’s gulls in the midatlantic as well as in Ohio along Lake Erie. It thus seemed logical that at least a few birds would spill over on Sunday to the small portion of Lake Erie shoreline that Pennsylvania has been blessed with. The storm system which produced the gulls also were good conditions for other western vagrants to move into the area, most notably cave swallows.

Banking on this prediction of Franklin’s gulls and the chance of other good birds, another Pittsburgh young birder, Jack Chaillet, and I headed up to Erie on Sunday to bird at Presque Isle State Park. We left before dawn and as light was coming up, we could see large patches of snow along the sides of the roads, what we hoped was a good sing for an interesting day of birding to come.

Pulling into the parking lot of Erie’s local piece of Canada, a Tim Horton’s, for some sustenance to hold us over while we birded, flocks of common loons flew overhead, whetting our appetite even more for the good birds we hoped to find.

Driving out onto the peninsula that composes Presque Isle State Park, we drove past flocks of bufflehead and other ducks, but didn’t stop, anxious to find Bonaparte’s gull flocks as quickly as possible. We quickly came upon one such flock, a group of maybe 40 Bonies’ sitting on the water and pulled over to scan them. I had barely stepped out of the car before Jack called that he thought he saw a Franklin’s. Pulling out the scope, we confirmed that there was not one, nor two, but three Franklin’s gulls mixed in with their trimmer, paler cousins. Target acquired!

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Franklin’s Gull. The dark back really stands out among the Bonaparte’s.

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All Three Franklin’s Gulls

Shocked to have located our number one target so quickly, we enjoyed views of this rarity and then headed on, towards Sunset Point for some lakewatching.

The wind was ferocious as we pulled onto the beach and set up the scope. However, it was well worth it as we began to see large flocks of red-breasted mergansers coming by in streams.

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A smaller Flock of Red-breasted Mergansers

Our main target during our lakewatching stint were red-necked loons, a bird a still needed as a state bird, which are found daily in small numbers along the lake. However, every loon which was coming past, and there were many, ended up being a common.

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Common Loon

There was plenty of other birds to keep us occupied though. Lesser scaup were moving in force, and a small flock of surf scoters raised our adrenaline a bit. Presently, Jack decided to take a break from the lakewatch for a couple minutes to locate a restroom. I warned him in vain that something good was guaranteed to appear if he left and this prophecy began to come true as the first common goldeneyes and horned grebes of the morning came past.

However, the bird that would really have him kicking himself came by short on their heels, a single red-throated loon, flying eat towards Ohio.

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Red-throated Loon

As he needed this bird as a lifer, he was even more distraught on his return to find he had missed what may very well have been the only one we would see during the day. The next hour or so produced more of the same birds as before, we the addition of a small raft of white-winged scoters which came by. But we never did see another red-throated loon, a fact which I will never let Jack forget.

Our next stop was at one of the piers at the tip of the peninsula. Bonaparte’s gulls were foraging en masse just off the pier and we were able to locate a common tern within them, a welcome late individual.

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Bonaparte’s Gull

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Common Tern

At another pier, we came across a cooperative pair of fox sparrows as well a flock of unidentified finches which flushed from a grove of trees.

We slowly proceeded back down the peninsula, scanning every gull flock we came across, hoping for a little. No little could be found, but we relocated one of the Franklin’s gulls from earlier.

We then decided to hike along the long trail to Gull Point, a spit of land at the tip of the peninsula. Despite the infamy the trail to the point has gathered for being often flooded and almost impassible and the fact that I had forgotten my boots at my house that morning, we bravely set out, hoping for the best.

The best was not what we got however as large stretches of the trail had degraded into what could only be described as a swamp. After crossing a number of such patches, we approached a particularly bad stretch and decided to spare out shoes by instead backtracking a little bit and heading to the beach, deciding that scrambling over fallen trees, dodging the freezing waves of Lake Erie, and jumping over large chunks of driftwood was preferable to wading through massive puddles. Eventually we did reach the point however and were rewarded with a flock of hooded mergansers which lifted off from a small pond. After the long and mostly birdless hike, the birding gods seemed to be rewarding us as we found a black-bellied plover foraging along the shore as well as a sanderling (another long overdue state bird for me).

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Black-bellied Plover

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Sanderling

As we walked towards the observation tower which is the only landmarked on the otherwise barren and treeless point, three snow buntings flushed, a first of year for me, and gained altitude, borne aloft by the wind to another spot of the point. We climbed the tower and scanned around, eventually picking up the snow buntings again where they had landed.

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Snow Bunting

After a while they took flight again, and we were delighted as they drifted towards us, playing the winds to almost hover over the tower and us for almost ten seconds or so before deciding we weren’t interesting and letting the wind win, blowing them out towards the sand along the lakeshore.

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Snow Buntings

A long tundra swan slowly meandered through the sky above the lake as we headed back along the trail towards the parking lot, another great highlight.

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Tundra Swan

This time through, we decided to stick to the trail which unfortunately resulted in me wading through a pool of water that came up to my calves. However, a few yellow-rumped warblers made up for it slightly.

By the time we got back to the car, we were more or less out of time and unfortunately had to make our way back to Pittsburgh. However, it had been a great trip with a number of great birds, and I was glad to have been able to cash in on the great Franklin’s mania.

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