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

Texas: Old Port Isabel Rd to Mexico

Heavy fog rolled in the next morning but it didn’t take long for the blazing sun to burn it off. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is hot. Each day I dug deep to my Floridian roots, sucked it up, and birded through the thick wall of humidity and heat. While applying regular applications of sunscreen and bug spray. It’s easy to forget that trying daily routine from the (mostly) comfy Pacific NW.

But of course the same reasons I’m repelled from the southeastern US are what attracts such a great diversity of birds. Heat and bugs. We had plenty of both at our next Texas hotspot, Old Port Isabel Road, seven miles of gravel road through lowland open grassland habitat.

One of the first bird’s to greet us was the Eastern Meadowlark.

I recognize that shape. This meadowlark is best distinguished from the Western variety by song. Western: a rich, low, descending warble “sleep loo lidi lidijuvi.” Eastern: simple, clear, slurred whistles “seeeooaaa seeeeadoo” higher, clearer, with no gurgles (Sibley 2016).

Brightens up that rusty post

Shortly after we heard another tell-tale “Bob-white” call of the Northern Bobwhite! This was one of my most eagerly anticipated sightings. So cool. Even if they just ran away from us.

Then someone spotted a White-tailed Hawk far in the distance. Worst views ever so here’s a slightly less worse view from a later sighting. Clearly white-tailed.

I should mention another hawk of Texas that should have been familiar but wasn’t.

Red-tailed Hawks. Like the one below. Where are the patagial marks? It doesn’t match Eastern or Southwestern varieties in guidebooks. Leave it to red-tails to break the mold. Jerks.

At least Harris’s Hawks follow the rules. And there were plenty of these along the road.

Not just raptors, there was also a fun new sparrow to ID, the Olive Sparrow. It has one of the greatest sparrow songs I’ve heard with a catchy bouncy-trill ending.

Near the end of this road we all got a great surprise on a telephone pole.

Mythical falcons seen only in guidebooks come to life. Aplomado Falcons! (Aplomado  Spanish for “lead-colored”). Then they did what no birds ever do. They both flew directly towards us.

They passed us by at eye level flying incredibly fast and low over the prairie.

It was absolutely stunning. There’s some controversy about “counting” this species for checklists; they currently meet the ABA checklist requirements but “Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC) currently considers the reintroduced population of Aplomado Falcon to be not established, nor self-sustaining and thus deems this species not countable.”

The last wild breeding pair was seen in New Mexico in 1952. These that we saw are a result of a falcon-reintroduction program by the Peregrine Fund. Thanks to predator-resistant nesting platforms and the release of 1,500 chicks (since the 80s) there is now a small breeding population in this part of Texas.

I’m grateful because either way you count it, the falcons are amazing. And since it’s my 400th bird species they count extra for me.

What happens after an Aplomado sighting? We could have ridden the high the rest of the day but it was still early. So we did the only thing we could do. We headed to South Padre Island for 0.99 beer bongs.

Jk. We birded on. The afterparty started at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center where a white-morph Reddish Egret drunkenly danced in the tides.

An Osprey danced with a Northern Mockingbird.

Black Skimmers danced in the sky.

And gators sat stoned grinning in the corner.

We also saw Scissor-tailed Flycatchers aka wallflowers.

And Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron doing The Robot.

It was good times. We took a break from partying and birded near a random boat ramp.

Among other shorebirds, we found a Wilson’s Plover under the only bit of shade around.

Then there was time for one last stop. Mexico. Or at least up to the border. This took some confident driving skills by Jen.
 

 
At least the tide was going out. Right? Then, before picking out birds in Mexico, finding a dead dolphin on the beach, laughing at cartoon crabs and watching Max catch a fish with his bare hands, we had the second most exciting bird encounter of the day. AJ yelled for us to look at the dark bird over the water!

We all turned to see a Parasitic Jaeger chasing after a Sandwich Tern!

But you can’t see jaegers from the shore?! These are pelagic birds! You have to be seasick on a boat miles off shore to see them!

Except when you’re in Texas. Aplomado to Jaeger in a day? The tropics are growing on me.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey

Oahu Part 6 – Kaʻena Point

We got a tip from a guide on the James Campbell NWR trip to get to Ka‘ena Point early and arrive from the south side. There is a 2.7 mile trail that follows an old road bed along the rocky coast to Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a rare protected area of natural coastal sand dunes and home to nesting seabirds, especially Laysan Albatross. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I sure hoped to see an albatross.

We followed Kurt’s advice and got to the trailhead parking lot before sunrise. But not early enough to avoid a truck commercial shoot. Luckily, the crew let us park close to the trail. Tomas was too sore from marathoning to go on the hike so he stayed behind to rest and enjoy the view.

I hiked along, sort of not believing this place was real.

Until eventually I reached a long fence.

Oh, I thought, this must be as far as visitors can go. I also thought I spotted a bird flying in the distance so I walked closer.

Wait, what? “Slide Gate”? I can go in there? No way. Turns out the fence is intended for rodent control not to keep people out.

I walked in and could not believe my eyes.

Albatross, albatross, albatross! I’d died and gone to albatross heaven.

Oh look, a Grey Francolin!

No, don’t look at the francolins. Albatross, albatross, albatross!

Holy shit. They were everywhere. And they were 5 ft from my face. I almost walked right into this one along the trail.

So close! I can’t believe they let people in here. And the reason Kurt said to arrive early is because the birds are more active in the morning. Indeed they are. And since it was December, the birds were also doing their mating dance!

They squeak, nuzzle, and clack beaks together, shake their heads, look under their wings, waddle back and forth a bit, then raise their heads and call, “hoooooongk.” My videos didn’t turn out, but here’s a great one of the Dancing Layson Albatross.

Meanwhile, other albatrosses flew right over my head.

Their wingspan is incredible.

I was already near tears of joy when, what’s that breaching out in the ocean?

Of course, Humpback Whales. Surreal!

This was one of those moments I think that birders dream about. I was alone on this corner of the island, just me and the whales and the albatross. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I snapped out of it long enough to register a couple of other birds present.

A Red-crested Cardinal and a Northern Mockingbird – what are you doing here?

There were also Common Myna and Zebra Doves, but mostly I couldn’t take my eyes off the sultry albatross.

This species, the Laysan Albatross, is the same as the famous albatross named Wisdom – the oldest banded bird in the wild, at least 65, and she’s still laying eggs! She’s considered a symbol of hope for ocean birds.

And this is the site where in December of 2015 a group of teenagers killed a dozen albatross and destroyed many nests. It’s deplorable. And complicated because two of the boys were minors, and a third who was 18 at the time and has plead not guilty. The case is ongoing. I can only hope there are serious consequences. It’s news like this that makes me wonder if the general public should even have access to this vulnerable area.

It’s heartbreaking but I want to believe most people are good. And that things are getting better. For the most part at this site, they are.

Plagued by feather and egg collectors early on, the birds were then accosted by 4×4 vehicles, dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose until the breeding population was all but decimated. Once Ka‘ena Point was designated as a reserve and off-road vehicles were banned, restorations efforts were rewarded with a glimmer of hope when the first chick fledged in 1992. Since then the breeding population has increased 27% annually. Susan Scott wrote a lovely article about their comeback.

So that’s the good news.

At this point the birds settled down to sleep as the sun warmed up the skies. Ka‘ena means ‘the heat’ after all. I started the return hike back to the trailhead forgetting to check for nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters that are also there but less obvious than albatross.

As I hiked back, I finally saw people coming in from the opposite direction, the commercial crew must have finished filming. It was perfect timing. And perfect timing for more occasional Humpback Whale sightings as well as my first Brown Booby!

Another unbelievable day in paradise.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey