Friday, May 17, 2013

The Biggest Week in American Birding–Part One:

Avie and I flew to Ohio on May 4. We went to visit his family on the bookend weekends. But the main focus of our trip was to attend five days of The Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh/Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and environs. Though slow at times, our birding experience was exciting, excellent, and full of all sorts of surprises.

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow description of our trip, I’m going to break it down a bit differently. I’m going to write about specific topics spurred by what we saw during our five days in the field.

My first post will be about cryptic coloration, otherwise known as camouflage. It amazes me how animals, especially birds, can be right in front of your eyes and you don’t know it. To be honest, it’s a credit to excellent birders in the field that Avie and I were able to see many of these exciting creatures.

First up, the runner-up for “bird of the week” during our time in the area: American Woodcock. There were two nesting near the parking lot, their nesting spots marked by yellow caution tape. This was so nobody would accidentally step on the nest. The following photos will illustrate this concept better than words:

Can you see the bird on the nest in the following photo?


Can you see her now?


How about now?


And, for good measure, here’s a photo of the nest with the four eggs in it.


Another ground nester is the Killdeer. Usually a noisy and showy bird, it changes its attitude completely when on its nest, usually a simple one on the ground and, often, in the most public of places (like our friends the Woodcocks).

The following photos show, first, the Killdeer on the nest and then the nest with the eggs blending into its surroundings.


Next up, a couple of birds who pose as literal bumps on a log during the day: a Whip-poor-will and a Common Nighthawk.



Then there are the Owls (Great Horned and Eastern Screech). These two were quite tucked in. So was the little Great Horned Owlet in its nest cavity at the top of a snag.


What do the above photos teach us? If you’re looking for nocturnal owls during the daytime, look near the trunk of the trees, although Screech Owls will also tuck themselves into cavities and nest boxes. I know we used to find Saw-whet Owls this way when I lived up in Rochester, NY.

A final bird, an acknowledged expert in the art of blending in, is an American Bittern. Usually they stand in the reeds with their bill pointed skyward – fitting into the profile of the flora surrounding it. However, this one was busy hunting while a large crowd of satisfied birders were able to watch it.


Moving away from the feathered creatures, there are plenty of other animals that have managed to evolve both coloration and behavior allowing them to hide in almost plain sight. The first example is this rabbit, sitting as still as possible so as not to draw any attention.


Upon our return to Cleveland, Avie and I went up to the Cleveland Lakeshore State Park. It was cold, damp, and windy, not making for the best birding conditions. But we did have a small adventure with a very young deer wandering around.


When it saw us, it lay down in the grass and stayed quite still. If we didn’t know it was there I doubt we would have noticed it.


We walked away and heard it bleating for its mother. Eventually the bleating stopped, so we assume they found each other. But here’s one more photo of the gawky young’un.


By the way, all these photos were taken using the zoom on my camera. I do not approach wildlife, giving animals the distance they need to feel comfortable.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Birding Big Bend in Late April

Avie and I have wanted to revisit Big Bend National Park since the Southwest Boogie we took a few years ago. This year it seemed like we had the time and, with our newer Toyota Highlander, the clearance for a visit which would allow us access without endangering our car or our heads. 

We invited our friend Mark along, made reservations at the Big Bend Resort and Adventures in nearby Terlingua (the Chisos Lodge in the park was booked up), and headed off to Big Bend on Friday morning, arriving in the early afternoon.

Driving into the park we were greeted by a desert in bloom. There were flowers of all different colors at all different heights. Quite a change from the last time we were there.

I had used A Field Guide to Birds of the Big Bend by Roland Wauer as a directional beacon for this enormous park. It was a good guide to the optimal birding spots. This was especially important because our time was short, amounting to only two days (an afternoon, a full day, and a morning).

We spent most of our birding time around the Rio Grande Village, nearby Daniels' Ranch, up around the Chisos Mountain Lodge, Cottonwood Campground, and Sam Nail Ranch. The first afternoon we made the mistake of taking the "Nature Trail" by the Rio Grande Village. I really should have known better. However, even though we saw few birds, there were still interesting things to be seen.

The first was a Ground Squirrel busily digging its burrow right off the trail.

 The second was a couple of unattended "shops" set up along the trail. They consisted of a few craft items, a small sign with prices on it, and a jar for the money. There are signs in the park warning you it's illegal to purchase items from vendors who illegally cross over to the U.S. side from Mexico. I imagine this is the vendors' way around the system. You aren't actually purchasing FROM them, since they aren't around. You're simply putting money into a jar in exchange for some found items.

At the Daniels' Ranch area we were forced to contend with a large number of sparrows in the grass. We forged ahead, naming as many as we could and taking photos (albeit not very good ones) of others, which we later worked on over lunch or dinner. I think we got most of them and they're in the trip list at the end of this post.

Of course, there were many birds which were much easier to identify.

Greater Roadrunner

Female Vermilion Flycatcher on Nest

Gray Hawk

Cactus Wren (above) and Lark Bunting (lower right)
Vermilion Flycatcher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Say's Phoebe Nest by Chisos Mt. Lodge
Wilson's Warbler
Here's a photo of Avie and Mark. We must have just seen a good bird because they're looking awfully happy!

Below is a photo of a Cactus Wren's nest up by the Chisos Mt. Lodge. They're a rather messy affair. However, they must serve their purpose since we saw several of the Wrens around the park.

Of all the blooms in the desert, I think my favorite were the flowers on the Ocotillos. They're a brilliant orange-red and they tower above the rest of the plants, swaying in the wind.

Our best stop of the trip was at the Sam Nail Ranch, where there's a watermill supplying a water drip to the birds. Water in the desert (or anywhere, for that matter) is always a draw for birds. We had heard the birding there was quite active and there was at least one Varied Bunting there.

The first time we stopped up there a birding tour group had just seen the Bunting and, rather than leave the area quietly and celebrate once they were out of range, they were all giving high fives, sharing their photos, and talking loudly. Needless to say, we saw no birds that particular time.

We returned the next day. It was much quieter and the birds were active. In addition to great looks at Varied Bunting, and we think there were two, we also saw Green-tailed Towhee. Two lifers in an hour isn't too shabby.

Here we are after that successful stop.

Saturday night we went into Terlingua Ghost Town for dinner at the Starlight Restaurant and Theatre. On the way we stopped at the old cemetery. Many of the people there had died during the influenza epidemic during 1919-1920's.

The restaurant was crowded with locals and tourists. The food was quite good and the band was great.

Now for a few filler photos of some interesting and/or beautiful things I was able to photograph.

What's left of the front end of a Scorpion

Unidentified desert blooms

Cholla in bloom
If you want to bird Big Bend (and we WILL be back), I do have some important advice to offer.

  • Always be aware of how much gasoline you have in your tank. Distances in the park are great and the availability of gasoline is sparse.
  • Carry more water than you think you'll need and drink it. You're sweating in the desert, but it's evaporating before you feel it. It's very easy to become dehydrated.
  • Don't count on your cell phone. We had little to no reception in the park and spotty reception elsewhere.
  • Sunscreen! Even better, cover up with long sleeves, light pants, and a hat.
  • Bring layers. The desert might be hot, but up in the mountains it can be quite cool.

Now I leave you with something outside Big Bend. This is a photo of part of a Prairie Dog town just outside Marathon, TX. If you're driving out of Big Bend north, it's on the right side of the road.

And now, The List: