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.



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.


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.



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!

Posted in Birding, Rarities, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.


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.


Warbling Vireo Nest


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.


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!!



Dusky Grouse


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).


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.

Posted in Birding, Mammals, Travel, Youth Birder Camps | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.



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.


Masked Boobys


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.


Brown Noddy


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.


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.


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.



American Flamingos


Snail Kite


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.


Leucistic Royal Tern


Sandwich Tern


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.


King Rail Chick


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.


Tricoloured Heron


Blue-winged Teal


Prairie Warbler


Purple Swamphen




Black-bellied Whistling-duck


American Alligator


Blue-winged Teal


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).


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.


Red-whiskered Bulbul


White-crowned Pigeon

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


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.


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.


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)


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.

Posted in Birding, Rarities, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Birding, Rarities | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!



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


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.


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.


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.


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.



Bonaparte’s Gull


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).


Black-bellied Plover



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.


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.


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.


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.

Posted in Birding, Rarities, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The First Days of Camp Colorado

Lifers denoted by Bold

This summer, I was given the opportunity to travel to Colorado and attend the ABA’s Camp Colorado run out of Estes Park. It was a brilliant opportunity to explore Colorado’s bird life more thoroughly than I had been able to before and would also get me some lifers.

So, in July, I caught a plane out of Pittsburgh to Denver, Colorado where I met up with the counselors leading the camp, Jen Brumfield, Bill Schmoker, Raymond van Buskirk, and Jennie Duberstein.

While waiting for other campers to fly in, a few of the other campers and I walked over to one of the nearby windows in the airport and tried to spot the first few birds of the camp. We were successful getting cliff swallow, house finch, and our first truly western bird: a western kingbird.

When most of the campers arrived, we loaded up the two vans which we would be using during the week and started the drive up to Estes Park and the YMCA of the Rockies where we would be staying.

The drive gave us time to meet the other campers as well as to spot some of the more common western species. It also allowed us to see some of the habitats in which we would be birding during the week as we passed through the lowlands, into the foothills, and then up into the mountains themselves. A light drizzle and low-hanging clouds prevented us from seeing the mountains well as we approached them (and even when we were in them), but the nearby scenery was still rather lovely and held a number of birds which were lifers for some of the other campers.

In the grasslands surrounding Denver, we got our first looks at Brewer’s blackbirds, western meadowlarks, and Swainson’s hawks as well as a flock of American white pelicans circling over a small lake. Entering the foothills around Lyons, the habitat began to shift into something more montane and the birds changed as well. Here we got our first sightings of white-throated swift, violet-green swallow, and (a nice bird for the drive) a single lazuli bunting.

At the end of the very beautiful drive, we arrived at the YMCA of the Rockies. Now, a point of clarification. This YMCA is not like traditional YMCA and sits instead on a large, wild property, that holds a large amount of bird life. As we pulled up and got out of the vans, we spotted mountain bluebirds, black-billed magpies, and heard the omnipresent wing buzz of broad-tailed hummingbirds.

We met some of the campers who had already arrived and then walked over to the dorm in which we all would be staying. On the way over, we looked out for more wildlife and I was chuffed to get my first life mammal of the trip, a group of Wyoming ground squirrels.

Wyoming Ground Squirrels

Wyoming Ground Squirrels

We also had a broad-tailed hummingbird that was very reliably being seen and letting close views on the top of a sapling right next to the sidewalk.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we were assigned our dormmates and had some time to unpack some of our luggage and get situated, we all met in the front of the dorm to do some birding before dinner. However, the birding started as soon as we stepped outside for we were quickly alerted to the presence of a northern goshawk sitting on the ground hunting ground squirrels. It was soon accidentally flushed by some people who didn’t realize it was there but we were given amazing views in flight. Even better, as we waited for the other campers to get there, a prairie falcon flew in and strafed the same field that the goshawk had been in, giving us all great views.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

When everyone had assembled, we hiked to the riparian area behind the dorm in hopes of some new birds. We were not disapointed and were able to hear a MacGillivray’s warbler as well as see a couple of green-tailed towhees. The towhee had been what I had predicted before the trip would be my first lifer. However, I hadn’t counted on getting goshawk that early and so was just barely off. I also saw the first least chipmunk of the trip.

The rain picked up steadily while we were birding (why is it that rain seems to follow me to every birding camp I do??) and so we returned to the dorms and then went from there to the mess hall for dinner.

After dinner, we returned to the dorm where we heard a talk about the ecosystems of Colorado given by Bill Schmoker. It was a great introduction to the area in which we would be birding throughout the week.

After that, we were all tired and headed to our dorm rooms to sleep before birding in the morning. However, one important thing did happen later that night which was that my dormroom decided to keep a yard list of birds seen from our dorm room window during the course of the week. That night we got the first few additions to it including some violet-green swallows nesting under the eave of the roof.

The next morning was to be our first time truly birding during the camp. Our destination was the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park where among other things we were hoping to find American dippers and three-toed woodpeckers.

However, we were once again distracted as soon as we walked out of the dorms, this time by a yellow-headed blackbird which had somehow made it up to the elevation that we were at, despite the fact that there was no yellow-headed blackbird habitat anywhere near us.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

After a quick breakfast, we loaded the vans (and spotted a Uinta chipmunk in the process) and drove towards Wild Basin. On the drive over, we spotted the first Stellar’s jay of the trip but other than that it was pretty quiet. However, bird activity picked up almost as soon as we arrived at Wild Basin. Before we had even left the parking lot, we had already heard hermit thrush, cordilleran flycatcher, western tanager, and black-headed grosbeak. Starting to walk the trail, we spotted the first gray-headed junco of the trip, singing away from the top of a ponderosa.

Scenery at Wild Basin

Scenery at Wild Basin

Mountain chickadee called around us as we hiked farther up the trail and a Townsend’s solitaire gave its pinging call. We also came across a MacGillivray’s warbler nest and were able to get rather good looks at both birds.

MacGillivray's Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

We also got rather good looks at a number of “Audubon’s” yellow-rumped warblers along the trail. Although this is the same species as the Myrtles we get out east, they were still great to see as they really do look rather different (and nicer in my opinion).

“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler

We were also happy to come across a Swainson’s thrush at a nest as this not a bad bird for the area.

The trail became quieter as we continued up and we began to lose faith in finding either three-toed woodpecker or dipper. However, just as we were about to turn around, a red-naped sapsucker which flew into a dead tree for a couple of seconds as well as a close view of a Townsend’s solitaire lifted spirits a bit.

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend’s Solitaire

Before turning around, we spotted to rest a little bit. We were all glad we did for the sun began to come out as the clouds dispersed a bit and a VERY accommodating golden-mantled ground squirrel appeared and wandered around us for a few minutes, seemingly completely uncaring that we all were there.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

The return trip down the trail, we were very happy to locate one of our targets for the day: American dipper. About halfway back to the vans, we were happy to encounter one foraging in the rapids of the stream bordering the trail. The water level was much higher and running much faster than normal due to the recent rain but the dipper didn’t seem to mind and gave us quite close views as it bobbed and dipped in the stream.

American Dipper

American Dipper

American Dipper

American Dipper

While this dipper was not a lifer, my life bird had given far less than satisfactory views and consequently I was pleased to get such good views (although I have gotten even better views of white-throated dipper in Yorkshire).

Audubon's Warbler

Audubon’s Warbler

When we returned to the YMCA, we discovered that one of the yellow-headed blackbirds from that morning (by this point we had dubbed him “Joel”) was hanging out in the parking lot and was letting people come extremely close to him, giving great photographic opportunities.



We then split into two groups to attend workshops on either photography or field sketching. I chose photography that day and thoroughly enjoyed the talk which was given by Bill Schmoker. Just as we were finishing up however, we heard word from the field sketching group that they had located two immature male Williamson’s sapsuckers a short walk from where we were. As it would have been a lifer for many, we set out immediately for where they were.

Sure enough, we found the rest of the camp getting great views at two very relaxed Williamson’s sapsuckers. An added bonus appeared in the form of a dusky flycatcher which called and gave brief looks; both of these birds being a testament to the good birding to be had around the YMCA property.

By that time, it was time for dinner after which we retired to our dorm to work on our yardlist, hoping for better weather the next day as it would mean that we would be going up to the tundra, a trip which I had been looking forward to ever since I first registered for camp.

Posted in Birding, Mammals, Travel, Youth Birder Camps | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Field Recording Post at the Eyrie

Photo by Bill Schmoker. Used with permission.

Photo by Bill Schmoker. Used with permission.

I have a new post up on the ABA’s young birder blog The Eyrie this week. This time around, I have written about field recording and its potential uses. Link is below.


Posted in Birding, Eyrie | Leave a comment

The Final Days of Camp Chiricahua

Lifers Denoted by Bold

On the final full day of Camp Chiricahua, we woke up early in Patagonia to head towards Florida (pronounced Floreeda) Canyon. This was a spot I had been hoping to visit all trip as it was holding both black-capped gnatcatchers and rufous-capped warblers.

Dawn in Patagonia

Dawn in Patagonia

Once it got light outside, the ride to the canyon was very pretty and we watched and listened along the back roads for five-striped sparrow although we were not successful.

When we arrived at Florida, we ate breakfast at the vans before beginning the strenuous hike up the canyon.

We had arrived early in the morning but it was still scorching hot in the canyon. It was also a really tough uphill hike through rough terrain. Nevertheless, it was successful for before too long we came across a pair of black-capped gnatcatchers that flitted in the trees over our heads for a few seconds. Re-energized by the bird sighting, we continued up the canyon hoping for our second target. Eventually the rufous-capped warbler too was seen and even gave great (although slightly distant) looks as it sang away on the far side of the canyon. Both of these birds were amazing to see as they are both ABA Area rarities and were real treats to observe. With the sun rising even higher into the sky we made our way back down canyon towards the shelter of the vans. On the way down we stopped for a varied bunting (a bird that I will never get tired of no matter how many times I see them for they are simply stunning) and to hear a northern beardless-tyrannulet calling although we were unable to obtain a look at that diminutive flycatcher.

Departing the hot but rarity-filled and beautiful canyon, we made our way towards the next stop of the day which was to be Madera Canyon. We were a bit anxious about this stop as it would be our last birding stop of the trip and consequently our last chance at elegant trogon for they had been avoiding us the whole trip.

When we arrived at the canyon, we stopped to bird quickly while lunch was being prepared by the leaders. We were all hoping to find a trogon in the 15 minutes that we had to bird although we were all unsuccessful.

After lunch we headed further up the canyon to a few feeders that had had plain-capped starthroats feeding at them. In our time at the feeders we were able to see not one, but two plain-capped starthroats (our second and third of the trip!). A bit further upslope, we decided to take a hike in hopes of trogon for there was a trogon nest along the canyon. It was yet another very steep, hot hike up a canyon and before we had gone too far, we were all covered in sweat and had more or less lost all hope of every coming away with the most characteristic of Southeastern Arizonan birds. The morale wasn’t helped much by us getting lost well up the canyon and having to turn around and backtrack until we found the trail again. We eventually did find the nest and sat down to wait and see if it was occupied and if one of the trogons would come back.

Trogon Nest Hole

Trogon Nest Hole

We only had limited time however and that time soon came and went without a trogon making an appearance. Our last chance was not entirely squandered however for a whiles hike away from the nest hole, we clearly heard the bark of an elegant trogon not too far from where we stood. The energy we had lost was immediately restored to our aching limbs and we scrambled forward along the trail, desperate that our quarry would present itself. Trogon luck was not entirely on our side however for while some of us (myself included!) did get fairly brief and obscured views at an elegant trogon, many others didn’t as the bird soon took flight and vanished into the sun-dappled forest.

The mood on the walk back down the canyon was an odd one as half of us were elated at our success and yet were simultaneously attempting to console the other half who were despondent at their lack of success. It was not to be helped however as we were expected in Tucson for dinner and had to leave our last birding destination of the trip behind us.

It would prove not to be entirely our last birding of the trip however for we saw on eBird that there was a small park which had a few recent neotropic cormorant sightings. We pulled into the parking lot with only a few minutes before the sun began to set and were quickly able to get our scopes on a large flock of neotrops resting on the water.

Sunset in Tucson

Sunset in Tucson

We stayed to watch the sun set before moving on to Jennie Duberstein’s house where we were to eat dinner that night. There we had a lovely pizza dinner while reminiscing about our time in Arizona before we all went to the hotel where we were staying, pleased with the trip, but unhappy that it was over.

Early the next morning, I was driven to my flight at the Tucson Airport which promptly returned me to Pittsburgh, for the trip of a lifetime was at its end.

Posted in Birding, Rarities, Travel, Youth Birder Camps | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Day 10 of Camp Chiricahua — Patagonia

Lifers Denoted by Bold

Our first stop on day 10 was at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Reserve. However, we got our first good bird of the day on the entrance road to the preserve before we had even reached the preserve itself. It was a thick-billed kingbird sitting on an exposed branch that unfortunately could only be seen well from one angle. However, we all were able to get good looks at this lifer-for-many through a scope. Another highlight on the way in was a covey of peccary spotted by the first van in the thick underbrush along the road. I was however in the second van and the peccary had moved on by the time we got there, leaving us with nothing but some tracks to prove they were actually there.

Peccary Tracks

Peccary Tracks

We didn’t spend much time at the preserve itself, nor did we see too much, save for an indigo bunting, some Wilson’s warblers, a vermillion flycatcher, and a singing rufous-winged sparrow.

We next drove to the fabled Patagonia Rest Area and the famous picnic table that is found there. A couple more kingbirds were present there as well as a magnificent varied bunting. We also had some nice looks at canyon wrens, a species which hadn’t been the most cooperative during the trip.

The Famous Patagonia Picnic Table, Namesake of The Picnic Table Effect

The Famous Patagonia Picnic Table, Namesake of The Picnic Table Effect

On our way back to the vans, someone spotted an odd looking cowbird atop of a dead snag. However, it took off before many of us could get a good look at it. While it was very likely a bronzed cowbird, it would have been a lifer for many and so we were unwilling to call it such. However, it did get us excited to many see this bird for sure later in the day. We had another interesting unidentified bird as we got to the vans, a “western” flycatcher. Pacific-slope occurs in the Patagonia area so there was a chance that it would have been that but without hearing it call we were forced to leave it unidentified. We also had another heard-only grey hawk although we were assured that we would see them before too long.

That assurance proved correct as my life grey hawk was spotted just down the road from the rest area! Unfortunately we were unable to stop although we were promised that we would if one was closer to the road.

Our next spot was a few ponds along Rio Rico Dr. As soon as we arrived, our attention was drawn to a flock of black-bellied whistling-ducks sitting around the ponds. Our first tropical kingbirds of the trip were also very welcome to see.

Digiscoped Black-bellied WHistling-ducks

Digiscoped Black-bellied WHistling-ducks

As we drove on past the ponds, we were finally treated to the cooperative grey hawk we had been hoping for. Unfortunately, I was unable to get any good photos as I was on the opposite side of the van from the bird.

Grey Hawk

Grey Hawk

We then headed back to Patagonia to lunch.

Another Grey Hawk

Another Grey Hawk

As we pulled into Patagonia and drove by the park that runs through the center of the town, we spotted a handful of cowbirds in the grass. Closer inspection revealed that they were indeed bronzed cowbirds, a lifer for many.

After lunch, we birded around the park in Patagonia for a few minutes to see how many species we could record (we ended up with 29) before heading to the famed Patton’s Feeders outside the town. This is a great property that has always been very supportive and welcoming of birders and is now in the process of being purchased by the ABC. It’s also one of the best spots in the ABA Area for violet-crowned hummingbirds. In our time at the canopyed sitting area by the feeders, we were treated to great  looks at a good many birds. The violet-crowned hummingbirds didn’t fail us and we were treated to great looks at an individual visiting the feeders.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

We also briefly spotted a rather brightly-coloured Virginia’s warbler as well as a local rarity in the form of an American goldfinch mixing inconspicuously with the lessers. Eventually however, a thunderstorm moved in, breaking the tranquility of the yard, and encouraging us to head back to Patagonia.

That night, we headed up to Harshaw Creek Road to look for some nocturnal birds. We all got out of the vans and began to listen. Within a few minutes, two elf owls began to call down the road. Walking towards where the elf owl was calling from, we heard a whiskered screech-owl far in the distance. Then an elf owl appeared in front of us, giving us brief looks. When all was quiet again, we decided to move on. However, as we were about to leave, a car passed us, making us all realize how weird we must have looked to them, a bunch of teenagers and three adults standing on the side of a rural road in the middle of the night.

At a bit lower elevation, we stopped the vans again and got out to listen for more nightbirds. Once again, we were not letdown for we quickly heard two common poorwill giving their haunting calls in the distant brush. While they were distant and we never saw them, it was a lovely way to end what had been one of the best days of camp so far.

Posted in Birding, Mammals, Rarities, Travel, Youth Birder Camps | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Day 9 of Camp Chirichua

Lifers Denoted by Bold

Day nine of Camp Chiricahua was to be more birding around the Huachucas Mountains and to start that off, we headed to the Ash Canyon B&B in search of Lucifer Hummingbird and whatever other birds we could see at the feeders there.

The feeder setup at the B&B is really spectacular with us seeing ladder-backed woodpecker, rufous-crowned sparrow, canyon towhee, curve-billed thrasher, Mexican jay, and an assortment of hummingbirds and other species within short-order of our arrival. Grey hawks were also calling in the area, taunting us, for we only heard them so far on the trip.

Mexican Jay

Mexican Jay

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

A number of interesting mammals were seen at the feeders as well including Arizona grey squirrel, rock squirrel, and a rather large Arizona cotton rat.

Rock Squirrel

Rock Squirrel

Arizona Grey Squirrel

Arizona Grey Squirrel

After a while, the Lucifer hummingbird came in as well and we were all treated to amazing views of this hummingbird. I had been hoping to see Lucifer hummingbird for a long time as they truly are spectacular-looking birds and we were very excited to get to see one.

Lucifer Hummingbird

Lucifer Hummingbird

Interestingly, we also saw a “Costafer” (Lucifer x Costa’s) hummingbird as well as a potential black-chinned x Lucifer hummingbird which shows that clearly the Lucifer hummingbird(s?) in the area have been rather busy.

Feeder-watching was a very relaxing and enjoyable way to start out the morning but we soon had to move on to our next stop of the day: the Ramsey Canyon Preserve. There we were hoping mainly to find elegant trogon, the poster-child of south eastern Arizona birding and a bird which we were running out of time to find.

A quick stop at the visitor center at the preserve’s entrance turned into something more when a violet-crowned hummingbird was seen. I was especially happy to see these hummingbirds as it represented my final ABA Area regularly-occurring hummingbird which was a goal I had been hoping to achieve during camp.

When we began to hike up the canyon, we got a few reports from people saying that they had heard or seen trogon recently. With this is mind, we were hopeful that we would find one as we hiked upslope. Good looks at a canyon wren by the creek running through the canyon as well as hearing a painted redstart from the farther along the canyon were nice but a trogon would have been better.

Arizona Sister

Arizona Sister

Some Interesting Mushrooms

Some Interesting Mushrooms

Eventually, having failed to locate a trogon, we decided to turn around, thinking that we had passed through the best trogon area. However, we had not failed for a little bit downslope, something amazing was seen.

It was a Sonoran mountain kingsnake just off the trail. One of the campers seized the beautiful snake and we were able to spend the next few minutes observing it at close range.

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake

Eventually, we put the snake back down and slowly started to make our way down the slope again, all of us extraordinarily happy to have seen such a magnificent creature.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Although we didn’t see trogon, it was still a lovely walk through a beautiful piece of canyon land that is thankfully saved by the Ramsey Canyon Preserve from any future development.

When we got to the vans, we headed towards Patagonia where we would be staying for the next few nights. On the way, we stopped at a couple places. First, we pulled over for a roadside pond that got us our first solitary sandpiper of the trip. We then stopped for some pronghorn that were also along the roadside.



We then stopped briefly at the Las Cienegas Grasslands to see what we could find. This was a really beautiful location to stop at and was lovely in its pristine silence. The birds weren’t bad either with Botteri’s and grasshopper sparrows as well as lark buntings, loggerhead shrikes, and a pair of Swainson’s hawks being the highlights. We also found a Botteri’s sparrow nest tucked into the grass which was fun to see.

Panorama of the Grasslands

Panorama of the Grasslands (with Santa Rita Mountains in the background)

Botteri's Sparrow Nest

Botteri’s Sparrow Nest

We then carried on towards Patagonia. When we arrived at Patagonia, we almost immediately sighted a black vulture flying over, a bird that is rather localized in Southeast Arizona. We then unpacked the vans,  and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pool at our hotel and the barn swallows nesting under the roof.

Posted in Birding, Mammals, Rarities, Travel, Youth Birder Camps | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment