Thanksgiving in Florida: Yard Birds

This year I spent Thanksgiving in Florida visiting family and squeezing in as much birding as possible. Luckily, Florida makes that pretty easy. I visited two years ago and gained a new respect for birds I didn’t appreciate while growing up in the Sunshine State and I was excited to return and find more critters.

Takes specialized training, don’t try this at home

My mom lives in Tampa near the University of South Florida, Lettuce Lake Park, and a small but productive pond right next to the house. She would have a pretty bad-ass 5 mi-radius if she wanted. Two years ago, her yard produced my lifer Black-throated Green Warbler, and this time it gave me a lifer Prairie Warbler!

Blurry, but there’s a bright yellow chest and throat, dark streaks on the sides, olive back yellow eye crescents, and black eye-line. I refound it the next day to try for better photos.

So much better

This bird was tough to get! The best I could manage:

One easy warbler to find is the Palm Warbler.

They’re everywhere with that yellow undertail continually wagging.

Another easy find was Eastern Phoebe always calling “Fee-bee!

And Brown Thrashers, another great southern yard bird.

And of course, the ever ubiquitous, Northern Mockingbird.

I am any bird and all birds

One morning I heard a tussle of raspy high-pitched trills that turned out to be a NOMO street fight.

An Eastern Gray Squirrel and I watched safely from the sidelines.

Cheap seats

Closer to the pond I found a juvenile Little Blue Heron.

Almost all white with a hint of light blue coming in. Makes me wonder what evolutionary advantage having white followed by blue feathers could be? Curious.

Nearby I caught a quick glimpse of one of my favorite birds, the Gray Catbird.

And higher up in the trees were gobs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

It’s funny to think how popular the one gnatcatcher in Portland was, when there are so many here, but that’s the fun of rarities.

Other birds I saw were Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and bubbly House Wren.

Wren of the house

I heard a Carolina Wren singing before I finally spotted it deep in the shrubs.

And I saw another iconic yard bird, the Northern Cardinal.

I happily eye-balled all these birds I haven’t seen in so long, then noticed a bunch of  raucous Blue Jays.

And realized I wasn’t the only one eye-balling them. Cooper’s Hawk!

Fun stuff, I could spend days enjoying the yard birds, but we had to check into the condo on the beach the next day.

Many more Florida birds to come!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,

Audrey

Shorebirds!

That is genuine enthusiasm. Not excited? Here’s an adorable Semipalmated Plover to ease some of the discomfort.

Fall migration is happening and I am facing it head on. Because I went to Smith and Bybee Lakes and totally failed at identifying birds. I forgot how hard it is.

There’s hundreds of shorebirds there, and I had trouble identifying one of them. So I do that thing that I do when I can’t figure something out on my own. I seek out help. That same week I logged on to Portland Audubon’s classes, and to my luck I saw “Learn to Identify Fall Shorebirds” with John Rakestraw. And it wasn’t full.

John is the same instructor who teaches the Gull ID class and Warblers and Flycatchers, as well as many others. He even wrote a book, Birding Oregon. I was in good hands.

In the classroom we learned of the 20 or so shorebirds that visit the Oregon coast and Willamette Valley. We looked at large slides of birds and called out the field marks. It’s all about the field marks; the shape of the bird, size of the head vs. the bill, the color of the legs, and the bird’s behavior. It’s knowing what to look at for each bird. This is the key.

Long-billed Dowitchers prefer freshwater ponds, whereas Short-billed Dowitchers like tidal marshes and estuaries, so location and habitat can also provide clues. It’s all part of a puzzle and that’s what makes it fun.

Our field trip fun started one foggy morning at Seaside looking at birds on the rocks.

Or really birds that look like rocks. We found a pile of Black Turnstones. We hoped to pick out a Ruddy Turnstone, but none showed up this time. We dipped out on shorebirds at a couple more spots until we lucked out on some birds that look like mud.

That’s two Western Sandpipers on the left and one Semipalmated Plover on the right. Westerns have black legs and long droopy bills. Semi Plovers have one breast band.

We also saw Caspian Terns soaring above the water, and I didn’t notice until looking at photos later, this one has a yellow leg band.

We made it to Fort Stevens State Park but there was still low shorebird activity.

Until we looked in the distance.

We walked farther down the beach to get a closer look.

But trucks are allowed to drive on the shore here and they’d scattered the flock.

Eventually we got looks at more Western Sandpipers, and even had a Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mix for comparison.

All Westerns – long, droopy bill, black legs.

Western Sandpiper (L), Semipalmated Sandpiper (R)

Westerns and Semipalmated look almost identical except Semipalmated Sandpipers have a short blunt bill. It was tough to get good looks before the flocks moved along. Shorebirds not cooperating? Let’s look at gulls!

California Gull – dark eye, red and black in the bill, yellow-greenish legs

And some of my favorite gulls were visiting, Heermann’s Gulls. Two E’s two N’s, orange bills, unmistakable.

John admitted shorebird numbers seemed unusually low. We missed out on Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plovers, and a few others. We checked back at Seaside, but found nothing new. Except jousting crabs.

The one above lived to tell the tale but I can’t say the same for this one.

We made another stop at Seafarer’s Park near the Hammond’s Marina where we found a Common Murre swimming out of place this far up the river.

The best action of the day came next.

Apparently Heermann’s Gulls are pirates! They wait for a Brown Pelican to dive, before pouncing and trying to pry the meal out of the pelican’s gullet.

Neat stuff. I felt bad for the pelican, but they’re not exactly known as saints either.

The shorebirds were so few at the coast we made an extra stop at Fernhill Wetlands on the way back. But the day was hot and the heat waves made it difficult to see the birds in the distance. I’ll spare you the blurry photos of the Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpipers. Here’s a pair of Greater Yellowlegs instead.

That bill looks like it’s twice the length of the head and those are some nice yellow legs. Bird identified. It might seem obvious, but if there’s one take-home message of the day it’s that there are limitations. Sometimes the birds are too far, or they move too quickly; distance, weather, terrain, trucks, there’s so many obstacles, but it’s important to focus on what can be seen and not get discouraged.

And when that doesn’t work, stay at home and make flash cards!

Nothing to it.

Moving along, we got good looks of a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk.

And a Green Heron oddly perched out in the open.

Not enough shorebirds in my shorebirds post? How about brown ducks instead.

Just kidding. I’ll save the Cinnamon Teal for later and keep my eyes peeled for more peeps to identify in the mean time.

Learning new things every day.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey