Feathers of Florida: Part One

Posted by ardeidae on April 08, 2007

In the Fall of 2006, I assigned myself the task of photographing all the birds in the heron family, over 60 species of birds. I look forward to the travels in the coming years to achieve my goal. I chose southern Florida as my first stop since it is home to about a dozen species of herons, and they're pretty accessible. Plus, southern Florida boasts two morphs of the Great Blue Heron known as the Great White Heron and Wurdemann's Heron.

It was raining when Carol and I arrived in Miami at 5:30am on March 22. A few minutes after we got to the car rental place at 7am the downpour really set in. This wasn't like the rain in Los Angeles where the news proclaims "Storm Watch" when we experience a little drizzle. This was the kind of rain where every part of you is drenched in 10 seconds or less. You might as well just jump into a pool. The locals welcomed it since it had been a really dry winter in Florida. My sense of direction was completely turned around...it was raining and still dark, and with the storm, the sun wouldn't be providing hints any time too soon. The kind ladies at the car rental place gave us a map and pointed us in the right direction. When the rain let up for just a moment, we stuffed our luggage in the trunk and took off.

I've heard that when it rains in Florida, it's usually for 20 minutes and then it's sunny. Apparently the weatherman hadn't heard the same story and forgot to turn off the faucet. Nevertheless, it was actually refresing to experience a "real" rain. The rains that accompany El Nino in Los Angeles can be pretty heavy, but the experiences with those aren't as enjoyable since I'm usually on my way to work. I digress.

First Gator
First Gator
The check-in time for the motel at our first destination of Fort Myers was 1pm, so we knew we would have some time to spend. Rather than taking Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) to our destination, we decided to take the more scenic Tamiami Trail. It runs on the north side of the Everglades National Park and through Big Cypress National Preserve, which was dedicated in 1974 as one of the first national preserves within the National Park Service. The critically endangered Florida Panther, a great diversity of birds, and many other creatures make their homes in the swamp land and ancient bald cypress trees of Big Cypress.

Loop Road
Loop Road
After getting out of the urban setting, we were able to pay more attention to the sky and vegetation. The south side of the road was lined with small trees and brush. Occasionally, I was able to catch some glimpses of white through the patches, enough to determine they were egrets. On the north side of the road was fairly open, with a canal running next to the road. It wasn't long and we'd identified our first new lifer of the trip...the Anhinga. A few flew two feet over the water, others were perched on power lines. We'd also seen various black birds on the side of the road, most likely grackles and crows. Vultures sporadically flew over.

On the Big Cypress map (PDF) I'd downloaded, I noticed a scenic trail called Loop Road. Since the map marked the road as unpaved (and it was still raining heavily), we continued to the Oasis Visitor Center for more information. When we arrived at the visitor center around 8:45, the rain had subsided a bit. We got a good look at another lifer, a Black Vulture, as it flew in and landed on a light post right next to our car and looked at us. Though we hadn't showered since the day before, I didn't think we smelled that bad.

Wood Stork
Wood Stork
After asking the nice folks at the visitor center about the condition of Loop Road, we figured we'd head back the 12 miles to the east entrance.
Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron
On our way, we looked north for a Snail Kite, but no luck. The rain started to pick up again. Loop Road is a 26-mile path through wetland cypress habitat, with occasional clearings where the water is allowed to flow from the north to the south through the Everglades. Shortly after we started in, I spotted a Wood Stork. We'd seen them at the Salton Sea in the summer, but they're really skittish. This bird was about 20 yards from our car and didn't really seem to care that we were watching it as it fed. After a few minutes, we continued on. Each of the clearings that followed seem to provide its own set of gems. At one stop, we saw our first alligator. At the next clearing, a Tricolored Heron was just minding its own business when a Snowy Egret flew in and decided it wanted the Tricolored's perch. Another stop produced a Great Blue Heron all the way up to its belly in mucky water. I'd never seen a GBH in water that deep!
Great Blue Heron
Great Blue
Toward the end of the trail, we talked to two women that had driven from Miami for the day. They had noticed a bird in the brush on the side of the road, but didn't know what it was. It was well hidden, and I never would have noticed it if it wasn't for them. After a few minutes we relocated the bird....a Black-crowned Night-Heron. On Loop Road, we managed to see a total of seven different species of herons: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, and Black-crowned Night-Heron! Also noted were Anhinga, White Ibis, Black Vulture, Bald Eagle, Purple Gallinule, and Belted Kingfisher.

It was almost noon, so we figured we'd head toward the 75 and continue up to Fort Myers. We decided to take Turner River Road, another scenic trail. There were alligators scattered all along the canal at the east side of the road.

Black Vulture
A couple of miles up the gravel road, we saw some Black Vultures feeding on the side of the road. I stopped the car to observe, and they didn't seem to care that we were even there. One even modeled for us. We continued north, adding Northern Harrier, Osprey, and Red-shouldered Hawk.
Red-shouldered Hawk
We continued until we arrived at the 75. Since there was no on-ramp, we turned around and headed back toward the 41 so we could catch a road that would hook us up with the 75 and on to Fort Myers.

When we hit our motel room in Fort Myers at around 3:30pm, we were both pretty exhausted. We'd both been up since 6am (PDT) they day before and only had about two hours of sleep on the plane. We ordered some Chinese food, showered, and crashed. Considering what an awesome day it had been, we were looking forward to what Friday had in store.

(Continue to Part Two)

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Whooping Crane Tragedy

Posted by ardeidae on February 03, 2007

My heart dropped when I read the headline on CNN..."Endangered cranes also victims of Florida storm". Storms that hit Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Florida caused all 18 endangered Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) being kept in an enclosure to perish. For the last six years, chicks have been hatched and raised at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. Their caretakers wear crane costumes to avoid human imprinting. When they're ready to migrate in the fall to Chassahowitzka, an ultralight leads them to their destination. This is a traumatic setback for Operation Migration and Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Now, especially, is a good time to visit their sites and show them some support.

Update: One bird has been reported to survive, escaping the pen around the time the storm hit. Whooper Happenings is providing updates on their site, and has released a new podcast that sheds more light on this.

Birder's World magazine also has a story on this. It includes interviews with major players on the reintroduction team; explains what happened when and what was lost; and describes the next steps for the project.

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New Feathers for Birdcams!

Posted by ardeidae on January 30, 2007

The nesting season has begun! And Beakspeak is making sure that you can catch all the action. The Birdcams page has been updated to help make it a little more helpful and easy to use. Here's what's changed:

  • The top five views for yesterday and top ten views for the last seven days have been added to make it easier for new visitors to find the most active cameras. Don't forget to check the other cameras in the list...they could provide you with a nice surprise!
  • The local time for each camera has been added so it's easier to tell whether it's day or night there. Daylight Saving Time is taken into account.
  • Sorting by location, region, and country hasn't really been utilized in the past, so region and country have been combined. Country is sortable, using region as a secondary sort. Location has been removed.
  • Camera names have been added to help distinguish one from another.

The list of cameras is being updated on a regular basis, so make sure to check back and see what's new. If you have any camera additions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to drop me a line at birdcams@beakspeak.com. Enjoy the shows!

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“Home to Roost”

Posted by ardeidae on December 18, 2006

It's always interesting to see the various ways people use their skills to help further conservation and rescue efforts. This past weekend, Geoff Ash pointed me to his contribution. As a talented musician, Geoff has combined his own musical guitar compositions with some amazing photos from some great photographers. "Home to Roost" was created to help the Save the Albatross campaign by bringing attention to the awesome albatross, of which 19 of the 21 species are under threat of extinction. All proceeds from the sale of the music from the video will go to the RSPB to aid their fight to prevent the extinction of these wonderful birds. Turn up the sound, check out Geoff's video and help save some birds.

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A Little Update

Posted by ardeidae on December 02, 2006

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything to Beakspeak’s blog. Not because of a lack of things to talk about, but quite the opposite, and thus more of an issue of time and organization. My day job, which pays the rent and supports my photography habit, has been a little crazy lately with some tight project deadlines. And the time outside of work is more busy than it has been in the past. I’ve become more involved with the Los Angeles Audubon Society, participating on the Board, chairing the Membership Committee, and contributing to the Los Angeles Audubon Urban Wildlife Task Force’s efforts to protect urban wildlife and habitats, including a Great Blue Heron rookery in Marina del Rey that’s facing heavy development pressure. That’s for another posting. I’m birding and photographing as much as I can. I’m in the process of reorganizing and tagging my photo collection. It’s amazing how many shots one acquires!

There are a lot of great places to bird around the Los Angeles area, and one of my favorites is Placerita Canyon, just north of LA. I met the park supervisor, Ian Swift, in the summer of 2005 and have done a little volunteering for the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since. Several months ago, Ian notified me that their webmaster was retiring and wondered if I could help out. I agreed and started redesigning the site to utilize a content management system to make updates easier and allow Nature Center folks to add content themselves. The site also includes a calendar of events and a form for schools to request a Placerita Canyon Nature Center program for kids. The site just launched this week. Check it out at http://www.placerita.org.

That’s it for now. Hopefully it won’t be too long before my next post. If you have something you want to contribute, drop me a line. Cheers!

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An Interview with Mike Daulton

Posted by ardeidae on September 04, 2006

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend the Audubon California Chapter Assembly for two days of workshops about the Endangered Species Act, environmental issues, conservation efforts, and other Audubon-related topics. When I filled out the application, I checked the double-room option. And since I didn’t know anyone else that was going to be able to attend, I also checked the “I need a roommate” box. I was fortunate enough to room with Mike Daulton, Director of Conservation Policy for the National Audubon Society. Though schedules were quite busy during the assembly, we were able to find ourselves in the room at the same time for some good conversation. Mike agreed to do an email interview for Beakspeak. I knew he was a busy person, so I tried to keep the questions fairly simple.

Jason Stuck: How long have you been Director of Conservation Policy for the National Audubon Society?

Mike Daulton: I have been with Audubon for seven years, starting as policy director of the Wildlife Refuge Campaign in 1999. I have been Director of Conservation Policy in Audubon’s public policy office in Washington, DC for the past year.

JS: How did you get involved in conservation?

MD: My family is very interested in nature. My mother loves bird watching and my father was raised in rural Minnesota in the hunting and fishing tradition. Growing up, I spent a lot of time on lakes with my father in the mountains outside of San Diego. My grandparents had a small farm outside of the city and I would go there as a kid. I think my time there helped connect me to the land. My aunt is a marine biologist who specializes in killer whales. She was one of my biggest professional role models.

I’ve always attributed some of my interest in nature to growing up in San Diego. I love the beaches, the mountains, and the desert, and the city itself has so much natural beauty. If a city can be a gorgeous natural setting, then San Diego is the case in point.

My family had a lot of conversations around the dinner table about bread-and-butter issues like the environment and education. I think it gave me a very fundamental feeling about what the right side and the wrong side are on public issues. Government and politics should be about helping out the American family and doing what’s right for the public interest, and protecting the environment is one of the most fundamental, far-reaching ways to do that. I believe that deeply.

Professionally, I studied Ecology with minors in Political Science and Economics and then went on to graduate work in Public Policy with a concentration in environmental policy. I’ve wanted to be involved in environmental policy since I was 17 years old.

JS: What are some major conservation challenges we’ve faced in the past?

MD: I think if there is a way I would generalize about it, I would say that in the past, we had to deal with outright exploitation of wildlife from things like over-hunting, unfettered pollution, and ravaging of the land in the process of becoming a civilized, modern, developed country. Basically, destruction and exploitation of our natural resources with no controls at all.

Some of that activity has helped us become a powerful nation and the greatest country in the world. So, for example, we’ve channeled rivers to move our goods on barges, we’ve controlled floods to protect our communities, and we’ve turned swamps into productive farmland. We’ve fed natural resources into our economy at an incredible rate to fan the flames of our explosive growth. All of that has had benefits, but it also has had its costs. We created public problems that became the impetus for our fundamental environmental laws.

JS: What are the major conservation challenges we face today?

MD: Right now our environment is under assault by a Congress that is being led by representatives who do not value environmental protection, and by a president and Administration who have short-sighted views. Our environmental protections are quite simply under siege.

It is just an extraordinarily sour political context in Washington, DC right now. Partisan rancor is at an all time high, and special interests seem to have more control in the Halls of Congress and in the Administration than ever before.

Just [weeks ago], the oil and gas industry pushed a major lobbying effort to open up our coastlines to dirty and dangerous offshore oil and gas drilling, and the House and Senate both voted to do just that.

We have been pushing to try to find allies on Capitol Hill to help us speak out against the Administration’s plans to begin oil drilling in extraordinarily sensitive bird and wildlife habitat in the massive wetlands complex around Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska’s Western Arctic. We are struggling to find ways to make the Administration listen, when their plans seem to be pre-determined and set in stone. They plan to do the bidding of the oil and gas industry and put this sensitive habitat up for leasing, regardless of any public outcry.

We have seen repeated attempts to try to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite its status as a wildlife sanctuary and its extraordinary value for wildlife like caribou, polar bears, and migratory birds. Members of Congress like Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens along with President Bush have been relentless in calls for opening up this natural treasure to oil drilling.

I recently took a trip out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in July to have a first-hand look at the incredible explosion of natural gas drilling in sensitive habitats throughout the Interior West. The Bureau of Land Management is writing permits for gas drilling out there faster than they can print the paper, despite the long-term immense value these natural areas have for future generations.

This is a very challenging time to try to protect our environment and to try to change the tone in Washington, DC on environmental issues.  But it is a challenge we must meet with the full force of our best efforts.

JS: What are the fundamental differences between today’s issues and issues of past? Could you provide some examples?

MD: I think modern environmental fights have become tremendously complex. Anti-environmental bills tend to have pro-environment labels. A bill that promotes logging in old growth forests is dubbed the Healthy Forests Act and a bill that allows more air pollution is called Clear Skies. Pombo’s bad ESA bill was named the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act. He actually has been arguing that his bill would promote recovery of endangered species, which is absurd. The incredibly cynical politics of today’s environmental attacks makes them difficult for the average person to ferret out and interpret. Being a member of a conservation group can help, because professionals are on watch—reading the bills, monitoring the committees and the House and Senate floor, and translating it all into what actions are needed and when.

I think in general the way the media covers these issues has left something to be desired. For example, I think there is a responsibility on the part of the media to understand enough about the bill to not let anti-environmental interests get away with a cheap label like Healthy Forests for a bad forests bill. The quest for balance in reporting has led to a lot of stories lately that describe the action by a Republican member of congress or the Administration with a cynical description of the action (we are so proud to introduce “the Healthy Forests Act”), and then basically say “the environmentalists criticized it, and industry applauded.” That is not capturing the assault that the bill represents, and not adequately educating the public about what is at stake.

Our opponents have become very aggressive in their effort to portray environmental values as outside the mainstream. They say we are “radical environmentalists” who “just say no to everything.” Representative Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, on the House floor just [recently], called us the “environmental Taliban.”

So, we have to fight against the fact that anti-environmental claims and anti-environmental views have become too common and too acceptable with some members of Congress and in the Administration. That is not so new, necessarily, but it is part of the modern fight for the environment, and part of the challenge we face.

JS: Have the methods of fighting for the environment changed?

MD: Every major conservation group relies heavily on email alerts to communicate with their members, so that is one reason why it is so important to get on those lists so you can be alerted and take action.

The environmental community has become very sophisticated in its political approach to targeting the right members of Congress with the right message at the right time in the right way. I think the campaign the community mounted on behalf of the Arctic Refuge this past December, for example, was highly sophisticated and effective. I think really with any major conservation group, if you are alerted to take action, you can rest assured that a great deal of thought went in to making sure that when you spend some of your free time to send a letter or make a phone call, that it will have an impact.

But ultimately, it still all boils down to the same old adage that all politics is local. Politicians have the control over environmental decisions, and every citizen has the right and the ability to generate pressure on those politicians to do the right thing. It is an extraordinarily important civic duty to do so. Audubon is a great organization to involve yourself with if you want to help.

JS: How have National Audubon and the state and local chapters impacted conservation efforts?

MD: There are so many ways that Audubon is making a difference for conservation. From the perspective of National Audubon, the organization has an active and strong public policy division that is taking the fight to the Halls of Congress and keeping the public informed about the threats to bird and wildlife habitat and the environment. We are fighting to protect the Endangered Species Act, save the Arctic Refuge, and restore the Everglades. We are trying to make sure our fundamental conservation programs get adequate funding. We are working to save our most precious public places from threats like oil and gas development. Our science division is engaging people in our wonderful longstanding citizen science programs like the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count. We are in the process of identifying the most Important Bird Areas all across the country, to help prioritize our efforts on behalf of birds and habitat. Our Audubon at Home program provides many ways to help the environment in your own backyard. The education program is engaging people in conservation through our Audubon Centers. I think one of the most exciting aspects of the Centers program is the prospect of reaching out to disadvantaged communities and trying to bring new people and new faces into the world of conservation.

Our state offices and local chapters are just doing so many great things. I work on a regular basis with the great folks in Audubon Alaska, Audubon North Carolina, Audubon Connecticut, Audubon of Florida, the list just goes on and on. Just to give you one example, I have been working with Audubon North Carolina to fight against a proposal to locate a Navy landing field just three miles from a National Wildlife Refuge that is important to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. To build the landing field they would have to buy out generational family farms and evict farmers who don’t want to leave their land. Audubon is fighting side by side with the farmers and trying to do what is right, protecting the wildlife refuge and urging the Navy to find a better place to land their planes.

JS: What are some of the future goals of Audubon?

MD: I think the most important goal is to get more people involved in helping the environment and promoting conservation. The constituency for saving our natural resources has unlimited room for growth. Ultimately, this will translate into a variety of benefits for the environment depending on which activity people decide to take. If you become an activist, you can help defeat anti-environmental legislation and protect special places from looming threats. If you become a citizen scientist, you can help provide the baseline data needed to assess the health of ecosystems. In the public policy office, we want to recruit thousands of new activists and new voices for change, and in this political environment, we will need nothing less to win.

JS: What can people do to help protect the environment and wildlife to ensure that their children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy it?

MD: Join Audubon, or another major conservation group. Make a donation. Sign up for Audubon’s e-activist list or another such list and take action. Join a local Audubon chapter or other volunteer group and help change things on the ground. Research the material the Audubon at Home program has to offer and turn your backyard into healthy bird habitat. Take your kids to an Audubon center or other nature center and show them the importance of the natural world. Just taking one of these actions can make a world of difference for birds, wildlife, and their habitat.

A big “Thanks” to Mike Daulton for taking the time to do this interview, and for providing such detailed insight. I hope this will help us all become better custodians of the land.

Please help support Audubon’s efforts in protecting birds, other wildlife, and their habitats by becoming a member or making a tax-deductible contribution.

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Snow, Sage, and Dancing Chickens, Day 2

Posted by ardeidae on July 15, 2006

After a great Day One, Sunday morning we met up at Jack's Waffle Shop again. After another satisfying breakfast, we took off at 7:30. We were on a mission to see more grouse, this time the Blue Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus). We headed down the 395 and into Lone Pine. We made a brief stop to consolidate the group into fewer cars then headed west.

Blue Grouse
It was 44 degrees with little breeze. After about 20 minutes, we made it to our first stop, Upper Sage Flat Campground. We were in a valley between two tall mountain tops. The place was covered in a few feet of snow, just crusty enough to walk on without sinking in. The mountain sides showed remnants of small avalanches, but where we were, slides were unlikely. Nevertheless, we all stayed withing close proximity of each other. We walked a short way and came to a bridge crossing a small stream. We stopped to see what we could find. Those in the front were able to catch glimpse of an American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), but I was taking up the rear and wasn't able to get an angle on it. It quickly disappeared around a bend. Just about then, we heard our target bird. We headed toward it's direction and soon spotted the lone Blue Grouse sitting half way up a tree. It was a little difficult to get good looks because of where it sat, but we were able to watch it for about half of an hour before we continued on.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
We stopped a little further up the mountain at Glacier Lodge, which was fairly active with birds. In the trees, we saw both Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) flittering about, as well as a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). Near to the stream were Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus), and American Robin (Turdus migratorius). A Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) flew in for a quick stop before continuing on.
Brown Creeper
Someone spotted a dipper working the stream a little ways up, so we stealthily made our way up the path that paralleled the stream. After a few minutes though, the stream curved off and our path became brush. Once again this bird eluded me. We did get a little treat, though, as a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) flew over and circled a couple times. We were able to get a decent look before it continued over the ridge. On our way back down the mountain, we spotted a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) taking advantage of the thermals to search for a meal. Hopefully it found something that didn't require a microwave.

After making a quick stop in Lone Pine to pick up our cars, we headed south down the 395 and took the 168 east up into the White Mountains. About 10 minutes up we made an abrupt stop. Someone had spotted a couple of Chukar (Alectoris chukar), a new bird for me. With the sloping rocky mountainside peppered in brush, those guys are really hard to spot. We were taking up the rear, but someone had come to point them out. It was hard to get a bearing with virtually no landmark, and I couldn't seem to find either of the two birds. And to make matters worse, they weren't moving. After a few minutes of searching, it was time to take off.

Fighting Chukar
Yet another bird skunked me! But not for long. A few minutes up the road we stopped again. There were calls of Chukar all around. And these were easier to see, not because of the terrain, but because of the movement. There were three of the birds in a close proximity. One of them must have been a female and the other two male, for two of them were really going at each other! One would grab the feathers on the other and then fly up, taking a mess of feathers with him. They'd fight for a few minutes, sliding down the hill, then pause long enough to catch a breath and climb back up, only to start at it again. We must have watched them for about 20 minutes before they both disappeard behind into the brush. There were still more calls of other Chukar, but it was hard to get any looks, so we continued on to find the day's target bird.

Prime Habitat
After winding another 10 minutes or so through the mountains, we pulled off the road into a graveled parking area. We hiked up a small berm. The top revealed an amazing sight...a loose forest valley of bristlecone pines and other trees. Prime habitat for our target bird, the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). We paused quietly waiting for any signs of a Pinyon Jay call, but all we heard was the gentle breeze of the wind through the trees. A small group broke off and scouted out the hill below. I stayed up top scanning the horizon with my scope. A few minutes later, we heard a Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi). At first it was a slight distance away, but soon came in close enough for a good look. Unfortunately, it zipped around just fast enough to elude my lens. No photos, but got good views of it anyway. About that time, we heard some Pinyon Jays noisily cawing. A few flew in to check us for a minute and then took off again. We got some really good looks. What an amazing blue bird! We hopped back down to our cars and grabbed a quick lunch.

After we were all satisfied, we turned around and started heading back down the mountain. But first, a quick stop to check out the forest on the other side of the road, where Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) had been reported. Sure enough, we caught sight of a few, as well as Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) and Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii). Well worth the stop.

We continued back out of Bristlecone Pines and down the 395, turning onto Fish Spring Road. At a small body of water, we spotted Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera). Along the fence row, we also go Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Brewer's Blackbird, and Says's Phoebe (Sayornis saya). We spotted some swallows in the distance, so we turned onto Elna Road. Thick scrub lined the east side of a gully, which separated us from a small flatland area before hitting the mountains to the west. Along with White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), swallows were all about. We tallied up Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), and Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina). That many swallows makes it a gulp!

We then continued back to the 395 and south for just a short ways, where we made our last stop at the Tinemaha Reservoir. We were way above the reservoir and got a view of it, but it was really windy and hard to identify the birds on the water with the distance and shake of the scope. We observed what we could for about thirty minutes before saying our goodbyes. Most of the group headed back to the Los Angeles area, but Carol and I had decided to spend another night in Bishop, so we headed back up north.

Monday morning, we packed up and headed out north of Bishop in search of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) we had seen on last year's trip. We drove around for a little while, but couldn't get to the exact spot we were looking for. The place we were looking for was a road lined with apartments on one side of the street, and a long scrubby area on the other. There was a bare tree at the end of the scrubby area that made a perch for about 50 Yellow-headed Blackbirds. It was quite a sight. Oh well, maybe next year.

American Wigeon
We headed back to Bishop to get some Chili Cheeze Bread at Schatt's Bakkerÿ. After stocking up on bread, we made one last stop across the street, a small park next to the Chamber of Commerce. There's a long stretch of water about six feet wide. Along with Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), there were also several American Wigeon (Anas americana). They weren't too skittish, and I was able to get some nice shots. I was talking to the park groundsman about the birds stopping by on their northern migration when a parking enforcement woman came by and started writing a ticket...for our car! We hadn't noticed the sign that said "20-minute Parking" and we were well past the time. But after explaining that we were about to leave, she let us off the hook. Yet another great thing about Bishop...even the parking enforcement people are nice.

It was yet another amazing trip to the Eastern Sierras. We saw a lot of great birds and beautiful scenery. Being up in and around the mountains is quite relaxing and peaceful. I can't wait to go back agin.

Oh, and about that Swainson's Hawk in Chalifant Valley with the transmitter we saw on Day One: About a week after the trip, the leader Mary Freeman sent us an email. She had emailed one of the local raptor experts about the sighting and got this response: "During the last several years the [California Department of Fish and Game] has attached satellite transmitters to about 10 SWHAs in the Owens Valley. The purpose was to understand late summer, early spring and migrational movements. This has been done in the Central Valley of CA also. The findings are that the Owens Valley SWHAs migrate to Argentina with most of the North American SWHAs, but the majority of the Central Valley SWHAs migrate to Mexico for the winter. There are currently two active transmitters still on SWHAs in the Owens Valley. You must have seen one of them."

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I and the Bird #27 - First Anniversary Edition

Posted by ardeidae on July 06, 2006

I and the Bird #27 marks the first anniversary edition! Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds (IatB's founder and this edition's host) poses the question: Why do you bird, why do you blog, and/or why do you blog about birds? Along with his reasons, over thirty other bird bloggers shed light on what drives them to birding and blogging as well.

When this topic was first presented two weeks ago, I thought it was a great subject to talk about and started thinking about what exactly I wanted to say. But that's about as far as I got. In the last several weeks, I've been so focused on a few projects that time completely got away from me until finally the IatB deadline snuck up and bit me on the behind. It's kind of ironic too. I'm not going to bore you with the details now of what I'm working on, but they're all directly related to why I bird and why I blog. I emailed Mike to congratulate him and IatB on such a successful first year and to regret not making this birthday bash, and he thought my reasons for missing this would also make for a good posting. I believe so too, so I'll revisit IatB's anniversary subject when there's enough time to dedicate to it.

Right now, I'm taking a little breather from all that other stuff and reading all the many reasons people have for birding and blogging. I've read a few entries so far and you should too...they provide a lot of entertainment and insight, and are quite inspirational to boot.

If you'd like to participate in or host an upcoming episode of "I and the Bird" yourself, make sure to check out the "I and the Bird" info page. The deadline for submissions for the next carnival is July 18.

I and the Bird

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Snow, Sage, and Dancing Chickens

Posted by ardeidae on June 04, 2006

The Sierra Nevada mountain range (often referred to as simply "The Sierra" or "The Sierras") stretches 400 miles, running along the eastern central part of California. The Sierra range holds three national parks. Yosemite National Park is the northern most of the three parks and was extensively photographed by Ansel Adams starting in the 1920s. Kings Canyon National Park was created in 1940, thanks largely to Adams' photographs and successful lobbying of Congress. Sharing miles of boundry with Kings Canyon to the south is Sequoia National Park. Named for the giant sequoia trees it protects, it was the second national park created in California. The Sierra range is also home to Mount Whitney. With an elevation of around 14,500 feet, it's the highest peak in the United States outside Alaska.

Just to the east of The Sierras are the White Mountains. Though the range has an elevation of 14,246 feet, the larger Sierras soak up most of the moisture from Pacific storms, leaving the White Mountains fairly dry. Within this range is Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest which hosts the oldest known living trees on earth, with some over 40 centuries old. Yeah, that's right...over 4000 years old!

Between the Sierras and the White Mountains is the Owens Valley with various lakes, rivers, and streams. Combined with the surrounding mountains, this area is a wonderful array of diverse habitats, providing an amazing place for birding and just plain sightseeing.

Last year, Carol and I had gone to the eastern Sierras on a field trip led by the Los Angeles Audubon Society. We had such a great time, when this trip came back around, we couldn't dare pass up the opportunity to return. When the trip for April 8 and 9 was announced, we immediately made our reservations and motel arrangements in Bishop. There are many great things about Bishop, but one of my favorites is Erick Schat's Bakkerÿ, home of the Chili Cheeze Bread, a big, flat, round loaf made with jalapenos and cheese. It's pure goodness. If you're ever there, make sure to pick some up...you'll see what I mean. Even if you're not a fan of chilis, there's plenty of other breads, cakes, and candies to choose from.

Northern Flicker
Early Saturday morning we all met for breakfast at Jack's Waffle Shop in Bishop. After everyone in the group had introduced themselves, we had a quick rundown on what we were expected to see. It was our leader Mary Freeman's fifteenth year of leading the trip. At 7:45am, we loaded up and took off. Our first stop was the small residential community of Aspendell.
Steller's Jay
At an elevation of 8000 feet, snow was aplenty. It was about 40 degrees, sunny, and calm. As we pulled into Aspendell, we caught a quick glimpse of our first bird of the day, a California Quail (Callipepla californica) hanging out around the thin trees by the side of the road. We stopped and parked. Since Mary and her husband, Nick, had been to the area many times, they knew the residents and the birds that hung around their feeders. There were plenty of birds around, and what a variety it was! Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) were perched high up on the trees. Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus), Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), and Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) all fluttered about. A Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) whizzed past us and landed just long enough to pick up a few straggling peanuts left out in the snow by a neighbor. It flew off with its prize, only to return a few minutes later.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
It wasn't long until there were three of the birds dashing back and forth looking for food. A Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) flew in for a few knocks. The Grey-crowned Rosy-Finches (Leucosticte tephrocotis) that we had come to see were flittering about, pecking around under the feeder to catch some of the fallen seed. We walked around the corner of the block and added American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea), and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Not a bad way to start the day!
Sierra and White mountains
Sierra (left) and
White (right)
As we headed back down the mountain, we stopped for a great view, and a Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) way out in the distance. I grabbed a few scenery shots. As we came back into Bishop, we had a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fly right over us. We were able to pull over and not scare away a Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) that set on a fence. I managed to snap off a few shots before it took off. Unfortunately, it wasn't until then that I realized my f-stop was still set high for the scenery shots I had just taken, resulting in slow shutter speed and, consequently, blurred bird. Every time I do this I kick myself. With the opportunity to get a great shot of this beautiful endemic bird, it was a valuable lesson learned...again.

We then headed up Highway 6 to Chalfant Valley in search of raptors. It wasn't long until we found them. The first was a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying low in search of a meal. We stopped and scouted the fields where we caught sight of a Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) also cruised past us. We got back in our cars, but not for long, as a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) sat on an irrigation wheel in on of the fields. We watched it for a good 15 minutes before we continued on. As we drove continued up the 6, a Swainson's Hawk was perched on a fence right by the side of the road. Carol and I slowed down a bit to get a good look, but had to continue on to catch up with the group. We stopped once again to scan the fields. The valley was almost completely flat, with the Sierras to the west and the White Mountains to the east. I snapped off a few more shots so I could take the mountains home with me. We ran across a couple more hawks, but also added Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus). We turned around and headed back towards Bishop. There were a few birds in the air, which we identified as Swainson's Hawks. Mary noticed something sticking out of its back and thought it could be a transmitter.

Swainson's Hawk
After a few minutes of watching, we continued on. Guess what...that Swainson's Hawk was still perched on the post. We were able to slow to a stop without scaring it away. I got a few dozen shots of it before it decided it was tired of being stared at and flew off. I had to kick myself again. Once more, I was in a hurry to get the shot and failed to notice I had been shooting at f32. At least this time, the shots didn't suffer as much as the last ones. Guess I better stick to shooting birds. Or maybe I'll just get another D200. smile

Barn Swallow
After heading back down Highway 6, we turned onto Five Bridges Road and up to Nik & Nik's gravel quarry, stopping first at the larger pond. Out on the water were Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), and Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris). A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) hopped around in a tree next to the pond, and a Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) stopped in for a quick visit. Nearer to the quarry is a marshy area, where a greater variety of birds were hanging out. Among them were American Coot (Fulica americana), Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). Another pond right next to the quarry building hosted a Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata). There were swallows all about. We were able to identify Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia), and Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). Not too shabby for a single location! The zippy and zaggy flight patterns of swallows make them hard to photograph in the air, but I snapped off a few shots. And since I wasn't shooting at f32 this time, some of them even turned out in focus!

We all piled back into our cars and headed down Chalk Bluff Road and caught the 395 north to find ourselves a Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). About a half hour into the drive, we were back into snow country. The roads were clear, but snow lined both sides of the road. The air was so brisk and clean. After about another half hour, we turned onto Highway 120, on the south side of Mono Lake. We were on our way to a coniferous forest that had burned years ago. Last year we were successful in locating the elusive bird, but this year, we were out of luck before we even had a chance.

Sage Thrasher
The road to the forest was gated off due to the heavy amount of recent snowfall. We were disappointed, but it gave us a little extra time to stop at the South Tufa Area of Mono Lake to take a quick late lunch. A few of us had already had a little something on the way up, so we took the opportunity to scout the scrub.
Sage Sparrow
Sage Thrashers (Oreoscoptes montanus) were known to be around, and it didn't take too long until we heard one calling. We quickly located it on top of some brush and got in close enough for some good shots. It took off after a couple minutes and flew across a little road. We followed it to where it had landed, but it ended up eluding us. Or maybe it magically turned into the Sage Sparrow that flittered about and landed long enough to pose for some good photos. We were soon called back since we still had one more stop to make, the main reason for coming to the eastern Sierras this time of year. We got back into our cars and headed back south.

After about a half hour on the road, we passed the Mammoth-June Lake Airport and came upon our church landmark where we turned off Highway 395 toward Lake Crowley. The entrance that we took last year into the lake was snow covered so we sent in a 4x4 to see how deep the snow was and determine if the cars in our group would be able to make it through. After going about 50 yards, the truck's backup lights went on and it came out the same way it went in. So we decided to try another path, which turned out to be completely clear. We were able to get to the gate that led to our prize spot, but our target bird wasn't yet to be found. We were still about a half hour early, so part of the group continued on to the south part of the lake to see if they spot a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I stayed behind to try to catch our target bird arrive, but they remained elusive. I wasn't skunked though, a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) sat and kept me company. After about 20 minutes or so, the group returned and we headed to our spot, a lek populated by the dancing chicken...formally known as the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).

Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse
If you've never seen a mating dance by the Greater Sage-Grouse, you're in for a treat. Well, even if you have seen it, it's still quite a sight. The males prance around, tail feathers spread far apart like a big spiky fan. They inflate their chests with air and bobble it up and down, booming the whole time.
Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse
We took a seat about 75 yards away, and sat quietly while the males tried to outdo each other, hoping that a female would notice them and take them away to a more private spot. I tried to get some shots with my 400mm lens, but the birds were too far out to get any decent detail, so I tried digiscoping, but no luck since it was getting dark and the shots were coming out a bit blurry. But what I ended up with was even better. Thanks to the movie mode on my Coolpix, I was able to capture the dancing chickens in full action. I was too far from them to capture any audio, so you'll need to provide the soundtrack. Whenever you see their chest bounce up and down, just give a deep "woob woob".

After it got dark, we left Lake Crowley and drove the few miles to Tom's Place to eat. After a very satisfying meal, we drove back to Bishop to get some shuteye. It had been a long day, but it was a great success nonetheless. I looked forward to what Day Two had in store.

Continue to Day 2.

(You must have QuickTime to see the videos. If you don't have it, get it here.)

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New Podcast Channel Added!

Posted by ardeidae on May 23, 2006

The latest podcast channel added, Laura Erickson’s For the Birds just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The programs were first broadcast in 1986, but still ring true today. Congratulations to Laura for such a successful program. Make sure to check them out! Laura’s a staff ornithologist for binoculars.com and an excellent blogger to boot, so also make sure to visit her blog, birderblog.com, as well.

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