Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Making it Up As We Go

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Male yellow-headed blackbird.

Sometimes you act on a hunch and it pays off. On the night before the final field trip of the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival, most of the attendees gathered for a picnic on a rhubarb farm northeast of Carrington, ND. I was a bit worried—not about rhubarb—but about the fact that our trip, called "Dawn Birding in Kidder County," was going to find many of the same target birds everyone had already seen: Baird's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, Sprague's pipit, Nelson's sparrow, LeConte's sparrow. On Thursday or Friday, these birds were heavily desired lifers. But by Sunday morning, many festival attendees were wanting to see something new.

A male Nelson's sparrow.

I decided to find out what our opportunities for finding something new would be. I talked to Ron Martin, who may be North Dakota's most knowledgeable birder and pried a bit of info out of him. Ron is a quiet, thoughtful man and he was happy to offer some advice. He suggested a birding spot, and then in the low-key manner that is typical of many North Dakotans, he began to rattle of the species we might see there: "ohh let's see, there are a lot of white-faced ibis there and a few glossies. Cattle egrets and night herons have a big nesting colony there. It's the best place in the state to see Clark's grebe. Lots of shorebirds in there and all the ducks, of course. Down the road is a spot for things like red-breasted nuthatch and yellow-billed cuckoo...."

I had to stop Ron and ask him to repeat himself so I could record his list of birds and, more importantly, his directions, into my iPhone. I wanted these directions so I could share them with my co-leaders in the morning so we could figure out how to go after all of these cool birds—very few of which had been seen by anyone else at the festival this year.

The next morning I shared my hot birding info with Julie Zickefoose and the other leaders for the trip, Paulette Scherr, Stacy Whipp, and Ann and Ernie Hoffert. Paulette and Stacy work for the Fish & Wildlife Service at the local national wildlife refuges. Ann and Ernie have been involved with the festival since its inception and are the de facto Welcome Wagon for the event. All four of these folks have been all over central North Dakota, but they'd never been to our new birding destination: DeWald Slough.

DeWald Slough is just south of the town of Dawson which is tucked along I-94, west of Jamestown. It's a series of sloughs, lakes, and wet fields through which farm roads wind. A quick pre-dawn poll of the trip participants gave support to the idea of going there first, then heading north to the pipits and sparrows, and a cafe lunch later in the day.

We drove about 45 minutes in an Etch-a-sketch pattern on the straight-as-a-string North Dakota roads until we got to I-94, then we bombed west to Dawson and dipped south to the slough.

Our approximate route to/from DeWald Slough south of Dawson.

By the time we got out of the people mover, a bank of gray clouds had moved in over the sun, but this did little to dampen our enthusiasm. The birds were EVERYWHERE!
Birding at DeWald Slough.

Standing in one place and scanning in a 360-degree arc, here are a few of the birds I could see: glossy ibis, American avocet, 13 species of duck, greater yellowlegs, American bittern, cattle, snowy, and great egrets, northern harrier, black-crowned night-heron, western meadowlark, horned lark, grasshopper sparrow, vesper sparrow, Savannah sparrow, Nelson's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, western grebe, eared grebe, horned grebe, Franklin's gull, ring-billed gull, black tern, common tern, plus lots of other common stuff like red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds.

Our group scanning at DeWald Slough.

Soon we started picking out some even more exciting birds: including Clark's grebe and stilt sandpiper.
Checking the guide to sort out the distant grebes.

We spent about 90 minutes at this first spot, working through the birds. Everyone got scope looks every bird they wanted to see well, which goes a long way to making the satisfaction level high on a field trip. Then we moved on to several other vantage points down the road.

We never did pick out a glossy ibis from all the white-faceds, but that was a small thing for most of us. Our final stop on the DeWald Slough route was along a road that ran along a high hill above a big lake. About half of the group followed Julie and me out the hill to get a better, closer look at the Clark's grebes. The looks were still a bit distant but satisfactory enough to count as life birds for about a dozen folks. While we were on this side trip, Ernie walked farther up the road and scanned a muddy and wet portion of an agricultural field.

"I think I had some shorebirds in that wet field up the road on the east side," he said. (Note that in North Dakota, when giving directions, most locals use compass direction instead of "on the left side." And why not? As long as you know that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, you're OK. Except at night and on cloudy days...)

We stopped and scanned Ernie's field and sure enough, there were a dozen Wilson's phalaropes there and a smattering of killdeer. Then I spotted a couple of distant semipalmated plovers. Topping all of these sightings, Julie exclaimed "I just heard a piping plover call!"

Sure enough, there were at least three piping plovers scooting along the edge of the water. This federally endangered species is struggling throughout its range and declining in most places. It was a thrill to see these tiny pipers—a lifer for many of the trip's participants. I snapped a few quick digiscoped images to document the birds, which were un-banded, unlike most of the piping plovers along the East Coast, which are closely monitored.

Piping plovers.

The pipers were noticeably smaller than the Wilson's phalaropes.

Pale-backed like dry sand, the piping plovers stood out on the dark mud.

Now it was time for coffee and a sweet roll and indoor bathrooms, so we headed into Dawson and invaded the cafe there in that special birders' way. The locals gave us bemused looks. But the cafe ladies were happy to sell us all of their hot coffee and homemade sweet rolls. We took our purchases outside and sat along the main drag, resting ourselves after several days of birding.

The sweet rolls were as big as saucers: three-inches thick of still-warm cinnamon-caramel icing goodness/badness. There was much groaning with delight as the sweet rolls were consumed, followed by loud smacks of finger licking. Liam asked for the last bite of my roll and nearly took the end of my forefinger off as he scarfed it down.

KatDoc and Lynne, two well-known bird bloggers, enjoying the town park in Dawson.

Just then, the sun came out and smiled warmly on our group, as if to endorse our decision to improvise the birding route. Certainly we were happy with the results.

Coffee time in Dawson. I recommend the cinnamon buns.

Now, bellies full and bladders empty, we got back on the people mover and headed north to our original destination...

Monday, June 28, 2010

July/August 2010 eBWD!

Monday, June 28, 2010

The latest issue of Bird Watcher's Digest is now available via our digital edition interface. This issue is sponsored by the good folks at Swarovski Optik.

Among the highlights in the new issue is a great species profile of the cerulean warbler by author Howard Youth. We've augmented Howard's text in the digital edition (eBWD) with audio clips (from Nature Sound Studio) of the cerulean warbler's song plus clips of some of its sound-alike species (northern parula, Blackburnian warbler, and yellow warbler).

But wait! There's more!

We've added a great cerulean warbler video clip, courtesy of our friends at

You can sample all of these various bits of ossumness via our free Look Inside feature here.

If you are already a subscriber to the print edition of Bird Watcher's Digest, you already get free access to every one of our digital editions. Simply register with your subscriber number (on your magazine mailing label) and a valid e-mail address at this link.

Non-subscribers can sample a portion of each issue, but of course, we hope you'll want to subscribe. It's just $15 for six all-digital issues delivered right to your computer, smart phone, or digital reader. And believe me, eBWD looks amazing and is a complete joy to read.

Still not convinced? Here's a page where all of this is explained in detail.

Wishing you great birding and happy reading!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Short-eared Owl: Kidder County, ND

Wednesday, June 23, 2010
A few weeks ago, I found myself riding along one of the farm roads in northern Kidder County, North Dakota, with a busload of bird watchers, on a Big Day outing for the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival. It was late afternoon, the sky was gray and overcast. As we topped a small rise in the road (this part of ND is full of gentle, rolling hills) we came upon this very cooperative short-eared owl. Immediately the cameras swung into position and we tried to inch closer with the front door open to get a good shot.

I was looking at the bird's belly and wondering if this bird had just been on the nest incubating eggs or brooding owlets (note the obvious cleft in the breast and belly feathers). If this hypothesis is correct, that would make this bird a female since they do most of the incubation and brooding. Males help by bringing food to the nest site for the female and, eventually, the owlets.

She soon grew aware of our giant people-mover inching ever closer. So she shook herself, took a quick poop...

And launched into flight.

We saw at least five short-eared owls (and 109 other bird species) that day, but the owl was my favorite photo subject of the expedition.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Way Offline

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dear BOTB Readers:

Apologies for the break in the posting here. I was out in the Great Plains at a birding festival and then totally disconnected from the world for a week in the western mountains—which felt really wonderful. The first week was devoted to birds and native prairie. The second week was more devoted to mega-fauna mammals and mountains.

I'll post some of the images and stories from the trip soon. But first I have to get back online (like this western kingbird) and catch up with e-mail and all the other distractions of this thoroughly modern world we inhabit.

As a side note, being disconnected from the news cycle meant we enjoyed a week free from the crushingly sad updates about the BP/gulf oil disaster. I was very much hoping to come back to the "connected" world to find that the gusher had been fixed and all resources were being focused on the clean-up and restoration efforts. No such luck.

Here are two ways you can help birds and wildlife of the gulf coast region by supporting efforts to restore habitat and monitor bird populations.

The National Wildlife Federation text message donation campaign. This is as easy as sending a text message via your phone to 20222. You will be charged $10 on your phone bill. Here is how these donated funds will be used.

American Birding Association's Gulf Coast Bird Monitoring Fund. The ABA is working with local organizations to monitor local bird populations.

I've learned from reliable sources that very few birds that are severely oiled recover, much less survive. The physical trauma of being oiled, combined with the stress of being captured, restrained, and cleaned has got to be terrifying. It's no wonder there are so few happy stories of recovery for badly oiled birds.

What's going to be more important (after getting the gushing of oil stopped) is getting the habitat restored, so that future generations of pelicans and terns and shorebirds can live in and migrate through the gulf region.

Then we as a nation need to figure out a way to be less reliant on oil and other non-renewable sources of energy. That's going to be a hard one.

Some people choose to scream for a boycott of BP. I'm OK with that. But I'd prefer to figure out a way to reduce our oil consumption overall.

I don't like to preach to others about what they should and should not do. So instead I'll offer this suggestion—which perhaps comes to me in the clarity following a week of being way offline—do the little things that you can do to conserve and preserve. Every little thing each of us can do will help because every thing in this world is connected. Grow a garden. Recycle what you can. Share a ride. Think about your impact on the planet.

And see if you can't disconnect for a while from the devices and technology and "connections" that eat up so much of our time and energy. You might be surprised at how quickly your brain and body adjust to rhythm of the actual world—and how wonderful (and natural) that feels.

Don't worry—we'll still be here when (if?) you come back!


Friday, June 11, 2010

Pileated Nest Part Two

Friday, June 11, 2010
Check out the swirling feathers of the female pileated woodepcker's crest!.

On the afternoon of May 15 I went back out to check on the progress of the pileated woodpecker nest I'd discovered in our orchard. Both birds of the mated pair had been sharing excavation duties and I wanted to see if they were still at work, or if egg laying had begun.

Soon after I entered the blind, the female flew in to the tree with the nest cavity. Without a sidewards glance, she entered the hole and started bringing out chips and dust from the bottom of the cavity. I noticed that I heard no loud hammering when she was in the cavity. A day earlier, I'd watched the male at the site and when he was inside, the hammering was loud and he emerged with chips rather than dust.

When the female reached to the bottom of the cavity to scoop up chips and dust, just the tip of her tail was visible.

On this day the female was coming up with mostly dust and dumping it out of the cavity. As she reached headfirst into the bottom of the cavity, I could see just the tip of her tail. This allowed me to estimate the inside depth of the cavity at easily 12 inches. Adult pileateds are between 16 and 19 inches in length from bill tip to tail end. They had excavated this cavity in less than two weeks.

I heard a loud drum from the deep woods to the southwest of the blind, followed by a pileated's contact call. Moments later the female exited the nest and flew off in the direction of the call.

The male came back next and continued his excavation. He chiseled for a while then brought several bill-fulls of chip up to the hole and let the breeze blow them from his open bill.

At one point he stopped to rest and seemed to notice my spotting scope sticking out of the blind's peephole. He stopped and stared. Turning his head left and right, he look the scene over very carefully.
The male was quite wary while in the nest.

He seemed to relax after a few minutes (and so did I) but he did not resume working. Instead, perhaps due to the heat of the afternoon, he began to pant with his bill open.

When the breeze would rise in force, the male would raise his bill—was he letting cool air flow across his throat and chest? I'll never know, but this seemed plausible.
He might have just been looking around, or he might have been trying to cool off in the breeze.

He closed his eyes and took a few short naps, so I knew he was unconcerned with my presence. This made me happy because I was looking forward to watching the entire nesting cycle—if these birds were lucky enough to nurture a brood from hatching to fledging. The huge, yellow poplar they'd chosen as a nest site was broken off on top and it was missing some of its bark, but there was no real impediment to prevent a hungry raccoon from climbing up to the cavity and making a meal of the eggs.

Male pileated woodpecker catching a few winks.

I'll revisit the pileated nest in some future posts. But right now I've got to go scouting for a Big Day field trip I'm leading tomorrow.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Birding in Guyana Part 6: Down from Turtle Mountain

Monday, June 7, 2010
Red-and-green macaw.

This post is a continuation of Part 5: Trekking Up Turtle Mountain. Walking back down from Turtle Mountain, one might think, would be easier than walking up. However we took a different forest trail—one that was a tad rootier and rockier—winding through more giant trees and deeper shade. As it was already afternoon, the forest was growing quieter. The first recognizable sound I heard was a grunt, quickly followed by a bad word, emanating from my own mouth as a result of stepping awkwardly on a root and twisting my ankle.

This was to be the first solid evidence than I had made bad footwear choices for this trip. Feeling the pressure of the trip's weight limitations, I took the minimum footwear I thought necessary. I packed light hiking boots (Merrills, which always seem to be too small once you leave the shoe store), some Keen flip-flops, and a new pair of rugged Crocs. I was wearing the Merrills when I stumbled, and the ankle support was not enough, apparently. I did not break anything, but the ankle would remain tender throughout the trip.

If I were going back to Guyana today, I would take better, more supportive hikers, plus a pair of beater tennis shoes (ones I could leave behind at the end of the trip), and some regular Keen sandals. In the heat, humidity, rain, and rivers your feet are damp a lot of the time in Guyana. Blisters and sore spots make it necessary to give your feet a break by changing into alternative footwear. Once my hikers became uncomfy, my choices were the Crocs (which raised immediate blisters), and the Keen flip-flops, which were neither safe nor rugged enough for the trails we hiked.

Just as I was regaining my composure after a litany of whispered, banned-from-the-radio words, we began seeing birds. Simultaneously it began to rain buckets. We stepped in lively fashion down the trail to a clearing where some open-sided buildings gave us shelter from the storm. When the rain quit, the bird activity resumed. Parrots, macaws, toucans, tanagers, woodcreepers, and a range of other feathered wonders caught our eyes.

Asaph and Tim scanning from the shelters.

We scanned the treetops on the forest edge identifying the parrots and macaws that were preening after the shower. We shook the rain off our "plumage" too, and wiped lenses dry. Then back on the trail en route to the boat landing.

Waved woodpecker, male.

We did not get very far. One of our most interesting encounters was with a pair of waved woodpeckers. One of which—the male—stayed long enough for scope looks and photos. It was picking something off the bark of a huge tree and wiping it through its feathers. We could not tell if it was sap or ants or something else. But the bird was sufficiently engrossed in its ablutions that we got very close to it.

A small flock of painted parrots (above) was foraging in fruit trees next to the path and a pair of yellow-billed jacamars (below) was hawking insects in an adjacent clearing. We all stopped to admire these cooperative birds and our reverie was broken, not by the rain re-starting (which it did), but by the prodding voices of our leaders admonishing us to finish the hike back to the boats (which we did).

Yellow-billed jacamar.

The boat ride back to Iwokrama gave us a chance to cool off after the intensely humid hike. The cooling air actually made the sun enjoyable. Had we been stationary, it would have been another story altogether.
Cooling off on the boat ride back.

Back on the friendly grounds of Iwokrama, we split into groups—some heading off for a siesta, some hoping the solar-powered wireless would be working, and the rest of us off for—what else—birding. Wally lead us along the Screaming Piha Trail in search of Guyana's weirdest bird: the capuchinbird, or calf bird. We heard them on their lek, high in the canopy, and we got modestly good looks at these cartoony creatures, but the daylight was fleeing and the show was soon over for the day. I'll tell more about a subsequent encounter with the capuchinbirds in a later post.

I wish I could remember the name of that trail we was a really cool name, too...

Moments after emerging from the trail, we took to the boats again, motoring across the river to a small island where there is a family-run bar.
Pelin, Michael, Andrew, and Steve are all cuckoo for coconuts.

We drank rum poured into cut coconuts, which is mandatory on any trip to the tropics, apparently.
When the coconuts were all gone, we had cold Banks Beer and watched the sun kiss the sky goodnight. Funny, my ankle felt fine at this point.

Two Trees Holding Hands


Two trees holding hands
stop me on a jungle path
pihas scream, I smile

Friday, June 4, 2010

Birding in Guyana Part 5: Trekking up Turtle Mountain

Friday, June 4, 2010
Pied lapwings look like killdeer in KISS makeup.

On our third day in Guyana, after a very warm night's sleep in our cabins at Iwokrama Eco Lodge, we headed out before dawn by boat to a landing from which we planned to hike up Turtle Mountain. As we were boarding the small watercraft at the lodge in the pre-dawn darkness, the birds were already active. On the lodge lawn a smattering of pied lapwings were scampering around, while orioles, tanagers, and caciques chattered and sang from the trees.

The birding along the river was good, and we added some new birds to the list, but our guides were eager for us to do our hiking in the relative cool of the early morning, so we did not linger over the large-billed terns and black skimmers we saw.
On the landing at the Turtle Mountain trailhead, watching the great jacamar.

Once on land, and the trail head to Turtle Mountain, we could not help ourselves. A great jacamar pair was making themselves obvious and we spent a half hour admiring them and getting everyone good scope-filling looks at this handsome bird.
Great jacamar.

Hiking up into the forest rising above the river, we were accompanied every step of the way by the screams of the perfectly named screaming piha. This bird was everywhere we went in the forests of Guyana. It seemed to warn the other birds of our approach. I began to wonder if I lived here in this drippingly humid rain forest, if I would eventually tune out the piha's screams, or if I would run screaming into the forest, driven mad by their ceaseless keening.

We climbed higher and the trail got rougher. Passing into ancient forest, we enjoyed our first close encounters with the giant trees of the Iwokrama reserve. Our guide explained about the uses of the various trees for building, weapon making, and medicine.
Wally Prince, one of our guides from Iwokrama and a forest giant.

Near the summit we had a run of birding that was dizzying. In quick succession we had great looks at the red-necked woodpecker (one of my most-wanted birds), black-tailed trogon, and flame-crested tanager (decent look but I'd welcome another one).
You might be a red-necked woodpecker if your entire head and neck are red and your chest is burnt orange.

Following this rush of birds, a small storm of fruits, branches, and poop began raining down from the canopy as a troop of black spider monkeys began encouraging us to leave their forest. they were crashing at high speed through the tree tops, but I managed to get one in the scope long enough to grab a photo.
Black spider monkey. Yes he's a male.

Just as the heat inside the forest was becoming oppressive and our feet were tiring, we came to the summit and the most welcome breeze I've ever felt. Walking along a small, rocky trail, we made our way to the overlook. What we saw before us was a truly rare thing: green forest stretching to distant mountains, with no evidence—not a single sign—of the hand of man. A river snaked through the green carpet and we learned that sometimes a timber boat passes or a local fishing boat. We noted with great joy that the forest was free of clear cuts or slash-and-burn openings of subsistence farming. The sky was innocent of jet contrails. The air was filled with the songs of birds, the mumblings of insects, the whisper of a breeze. Heaven.

The incredible view from Turtle Mountain.

We took this group photo there.

Our fam trip group atop Turtle Mountain: Kneeling in front Patrick Henry, second row back from left to right: Pelin Karaca, Wally Prince. Third row from left: Asaph Wilson, Andrew Haffenden, Tim Appleton. Back row: Bill Thompson III, Charlie Vogt, Eric Lindberg, Steve Banner, Karen Strauss.

And I just had to do my standard shout-out to my birding peeps in the Ohio Ornithological Society by showing the OOS colors at the Turtle Mountain overlook.

After lunching and cooling off with some cold water and fruit juice, it was time to begin the hot walk back down the mountain. Little did we know it, as we began the descent, we'd see even more amazing birds on the way down, but we'd pay for the privilege through the wrath of the weather gods.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

This Birding Life, Episode #26

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
A male Guyanan cock-of-the-rock, one of the most exciting species in Guyana.

Episode #26 of my podcast "This Birding Life" was just pulled out of the Easy-Bake Oven and is now available for downloading. This episode is entitled "Voices of Guyana." It's available (free of charge) in the usual places—at Podcast Central on the BWD website and in the iTunes Store in the Podcast section (just search for "This Birding Life").

Like most of the 25 episodes that preceded it, this one is available in two formats: audio only (mp3) and enhanced audio with still photos (m4a).

As you might surmise from the title, "Voices of Guyana," this episode is a series of interviews I conducted on my trip in March of 2010 to Guyana. I was there as a part of a familiarization tour for journalists and tour operators to sample bird watching in Guyana. The trip was amazing, the birds were as fabulous as they were numerous, and the people of Guyana were a complete pleasure to meet (with the possible exception of Mr. Dogg the somewhat cranky pick-up truck driver, but that's another story for another time...).

Asaph Wilson was our primary guide for the Guyana birding trip.

I've been writing some here on BOTB about my experience in Guyana. There's more coming, too, both here and in the pages of Bird Watcher's Digest, and on the BWD website, where we have created a special Guyana section.
Six of the participants in the Guyana fam tour in March 2010 and a termite mound (behind).

Guyana is a country that is only just emerging as a destination for ecotourists. If you'd like to know more about this amazingly birdy South American country, please take a stroll through some of the content we're offering in these various formats.

Thanks for reading, watching, listening.