Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly #66

Last week, I posted photos of a King Eider for my Bird Photography Weekly Post. This week, I'd like to present a few photos of it's more common cousin (in these parts at least)... the Common Eider:

Common Eider - Somateria mollissima

I can't quite decide which is the more attractive of the pair - the male or the female.

PS - as always click on the photos to see larger versions!

To see some great bird photos from around the world, check out:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wordless Wednesday 11/25/09

Silver Garden-Spider (Argiope argentata)

Photographed at Laguna Atascosa NWR in Texas.

As always, click on the photo to see a larger, more detailed image.

Get Wordless over at Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RGVBF - post festival birding

After 4 days of daily (very) early morning starts to go birding for the better part of the day, you might think that we'd take our last day of vacation a little easier - sleep in, maybe do a little local sightseeing or shopping etc. No way! We are birders, and with only one day left in the valley, we wanted to get out and check out some sightings from the festival and maybe get one last visit in to our favorite spots. (OK, maybe we slept in a little bit)

My biggest goal for the day was to try and find the Rose-throated Becard that had been seen on-and-off at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Luck was not with us, as this particular morning dawned windy with occasional light rain. Someday I'll catch up with this bird. (there's a festival again next year, right?) We really enjoyed this World Birding Center location, so spent a bit of time there, watching waterfowl right from the deck at the visitor's center, and I attempted to get some satisfactory shots at the Northern Shoveller's there.

While on the deck we had a special treat - the resident bobcat had come to the edge of the water, and with very little ado, grabbed a coot (yea, that is a bird for those of you who might not know) and wandered back to it lair with it.Estero Llano Grande is also a great place for butterflies and dragonflies as well. Just as we were leaving we spotted this beautiful Mexican BlueWing right near the hummingbird feeders.
It was late morning by the time we got on the road again. We were both feeling the effects of 8 days of almost non-stop birding (as well as a bit of partying) so neither of us felt up to any real intense birding. While in the valley, this means to me that we'd head back to one of our favorite spots - Laguna Atascosa NWR. With a 15 mile wildlife drive, you can see plenty of great stuff while sitting on your @ss in the car.
Along the way, my attention was drawn, by a large blackbird flock feeding in the grass along the side of the road. I quickly pulled over as I realized that the flock was mostly Bronzed Cowbirds, and although not uncommon, I really wanted to get a few photos of these birds. I really like their rich shiny blue-black plumage against the devilish red eye. But the best is when they are worked up a bit - they raised the feathers on their head and neck, giving them the appearance of wearing a cowl.
Pretty cool - or at least I think so!

On the drive in to the refuge, we passed another tarantula on the road, and stopped to admire it (as well as to try to coax it to a less dangerous place. Not sure if other drivers would be appreciating them as much as we do)

We stopped in at the refuge headquarters to check in and see if there had been any good sightings listed from that morning (there weren't) and checked the spot where we'd seen a roosting pauraque a few years ago (it wasn't there) a spent a few moments in one of the blinds, where I finally got a shot off at another beautiful dragonfly that I'd been hoping to get a pic of, a Carmine Skimmer:

Upon entering the refuge drive, we were greeted by one of the locals. This girl was rather non-plussed by our cars appearance on the road. I know both that she was non-plussed and that she was a she, because after a few moments of looking at us, she squatted down and um... well to use a term I like to use in mixed company - she "hydro-regulated" in the middle of the road. Gave us a few more moments looks, then trotted of into the brush.

Driving along the refuge road, we saw many of the birds that we are used to seeing there, including several of my favorites, the White-tailed Kite. This one stayed perched for extended looks with the scope:

While others hovered above:

And just as we'd had in the past, as we were on the last half of the refuge drive, we were treated to an all too brief glimpse of an Aplomado Falcon as it zoomed past and behind us. No chance for a photo though. Someday, I'll get to see one perched from closer than a mile or two away!

That evening we headed back to the hotel, grabbed a bit to eat at the Las Vegas restaurant (quite good Mexican food!) and called it a great vacation!!!

Anybody who is interested in more details of logistics, birds, places, etc please feel free to drop me a line! We really love visiting the valley and I'll be happy to be a birding ambassador and encouraging anybody to go who is even considering the trip!

Monday, November 23, 2009

RGVBF - Day four

Day four of the festival and we're still going strong. Well, it wasn't easy getting out of bed at 4-something every morning, but when you are in 'the valley', with such great birds and guides, well, you just have to do it! Sunday morning's adventure we actually kept things a little closer than in the previous few trips and boarded a bus towards Brownsville. In year's past, when heading to Brownsville, many birders headed to the city landfill for Tamaulipas Crow, though they have not been seen there for years. When I've gone in previous years, my primary destination was the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, and unfortunately, due to the @#$%&! wall, it is no longer open to visit. For this trip, we started by birding the resacas at the University of Texas in Brownsville. In no time, we were hearing the vocal differences between Tropical and Couch's Kingbirds, spotting Yellow-throated Warblers among the palms, and seeing a flock of Green Parakeets circling the area.

Photo of some "non-countable" Muscovey Ducks

After birding the campus a bit, we headed to Resaca del Las Palmas State Park (another World Birding Center - and I believe the newest one in the system). I will say it again, I am very very impressed with the job that the WBC is doing with the parks! We were getting into the warm part of the day, so Pam and I decided not to hike as far as much of the group, but still enjoyed our time with Least Grebes, a Texas Green Anole, and what has quickly become my favorite dragonfly, the Roseate Skimmer.
On the bus ride back from Brownsville towards Harlingen, I learned via Twitter that Jeff Bouton and several others had seen a Rose-throated Becard at Estero Llano State Park. (Modern technology really can be a wonderful thing, and this is a perfect example of how it has changed the face of birding.) Unfortunately, even with relatively recent knowledge of the sighting and perfect directions, we still dipped on the becard. :(

That evening, Marci invited Pam and I to stick around while they celebrated and thanked all the wonderful folks who helped to make the festival happen. After a meal and some toasts, those who wished to stick around enjoyed beers and laughs, as well as a bit of karaoke. What a blast!

This is the first time that I've attended a birding festival, and I've said earlier and I'll probably say it again - as great as the trips are (and they are great, thanks to the leaders) I think the best part of the festival is the people you meet, the connections you make, and the friends you make.
(Yeah, yeah, I know - it sounds cheesy, but there you are)

One last post to follow...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly #65

Going to break away from the Rio Grande Valley posts quickly for this week's BPW.

Since returning from our trip, there have been a lot of great bird reports locally, which made it somewhat difficult to decide where to head on what was predicted to be a balmy sunny Saturday. Should we head to Plum Island for Lark Bunting, or maybe to Allen's Pond for a shot at Henslow's Sparrow, or perhaps to Boston's Fenway for a MacGillivray's warbler that had been seen pretty reliably. In the end, we decided to head up to Cape Ann to check out some spots in Gloucester and Rockport. These areas are great in the winter, usually gernering some of the less common/rare gulls, and usually a good number of other birds too. There had been reports for two days of a drake King Eider - which is a bird we usually see here in the winter, and often get good looks with a scope. What was different about this sighting was that people were almost looking down onto the bird from a bridge over a channel near Good Harbor Beach. So we decided to give it a shot. When we arrived, it was low tide, and there was almost no water in the channel at all - and no sign of the bird. So we continued to bird other areas and get lunch to give the tide a chance to rise. When we returned, I managed to spot the bird "a little ways out" but nothing spectacular for looks.
While watching him in the scope, he seemed to be simply drifting on the tide, and soon he was closer...

Then, at one point, he made the decision to make a more concerted effort to head towards the channel where he'd been reported before...

And provided wonderful looks in the afternoon light!
I should note that this is not some barren beach, but rather active with a lot of dog owners who are permitted to let their dogs run free here, as well as a lot of surfers. (Yep - surfing in New England ocean waters in the winter - and you though birders were crazy?!?)

The eider did get to a point, then obviously was having a difficult time deciding if he risked going any further into the channel with all the people and dogs nearby. But it turns out that he was close enough, because he starting diving and came up with a few crabs to nosh on.

After enjoying a early crab dinner, he stretched out, then retreated to some rocks, that were further away from the dogs and surfers, but actually not to far from the small crowd of birders that had gathered to enjoy almost unprecedented looks at this bird in MA.

Finally, he sat down in the warm afternoon light and relaxed while digesting his meal.
Truly a rare and wonderful experience to see this beautiful bird this well.

PS - as always click on the photos to see larger versions!

To see some great bird photos from around the world, check out:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

RGVBF - Day three

Day three started dark and early again. We met the bus at the convention center again at about 4:30am for a 5am departure. Today's destinations included Salineno and Chapeno, which are northwest of the valley along the Rio Grande. These areas became popular some years ago as they were about the only place where a birder could get an ABA-countable Brown Jay. Unfortunately, reports have become scarce to non-existent of Brown Jays in Texas. There are plenty of other birds though - not to mention a chance at Muscovey Ducks and Red-billed Pigeons. Our first stop was at Chapeno. We spent some time checking out the river in hopes of seeing either of the above mentioned species, with no luck. We did see Audubon's Oriole and both Green and Ringed Kingfishers:

We next headed to Salineno, also right along the river where we again had nice comparatively looks at Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, but no Muscoveys or Red-billed Pigeons. Just a few yards from the river, there is a "birder's park" where the DeWinds used to set-up their RV each winter and feed the birds, and the tradition continues. We got to sit comfortably while watching a rainbow of birds come through: Altamira Orioles, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and Green Jays.
Also while in the area, somebody called out "Zone-tailed!" and looking up, we did get
some pretty nice looks at a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk. But that look was surpassed by another we got up the road near Falcon State Park. I don't recall the name of the small park we stopped at, but we added some nice birds like Pyrrhuloxia to the trip list.

So no lifers, on that trip - but we wouldn't close out the day without one. That afternoon we joined a trip to try and find Red-crowned Parrots and Green Parakeets. Luckily we managed to find both. The Green Parakeets were lifers for both Pamela and myslef, and we got pretty good looks, but only of birds in flight. We had seen Red-crowned Parrots before when visiting Texas, but they were only birds in flight at dusk. This time we were treated to extended looks at perched birds:

The days fun wasn't about to stop there though. The last few times that I talked with Jeff Gordon, he asked if I would be interested in participating in the "game show" that would be taking place that evening. How could I resist? Turns out that he pulled together a great birder's version of Jeopardy. My co-contestant's were Chip Clouse of the American Birding Association, and Katie Fitzmier of Eagle Optics.
Special thanks to Kenny Salazar from the festival for the pic!

After we completed our round, there were two other rounds, and I've got to give Jeff a lot of credit - he really came up with some great catagories and questions, some complete with photo and video clues. I think it's safe to say that everybody enjoyed the evening - though frankly I'm not sure anybody enjoyed it as much as me!

Friday, November 20, 2009

RGVBF - Day two

Well, day one of the festival started out with a bang - it's not every day I get a life bird anymore, and the seedeater was one I really had my hopes up for. On day two, Pam and I were scheduled for a trip to the famous King Ranch. This is the spot many birders go to get their life Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. Pam and I heard them all the time when we were in Trinidad earlier this year, but as anyone who has birded the tropics knows - hearing a bird doesn't always mean seeing a bird. So I was pretty excited to see this cool little owl (not to mention add it to my ABA list). The ranch is an amazing place for birding, and we had some excellent guides - one of whom currently works on the ranch as a naturalist and one who worked there for many years - so we were in good hands. Thanks to the sharp-eyed (and -eared) guides we had a busload of happy birders getting fantastic looks at an owl - and to the extra credit of the guides, kept all these people a comfortable distance away from the bird such that it remained in the same place for the entire time we were in the area.

A life look at the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

I mentioned that it stayed there "the entire time we were in the area" because after about a half-hour or so, we turned our attention to other birds - an Audubon's Oriole that called nearby but refused to show itself, and a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that did put on a nice show for us.It has been joked (regularly, as I've heard this from many quarters over the years) that this tiny little flycatcher's name is bigger than he is. If you break out the name it does make sense though - "Tyrannulet" because it is a member of the tyrant flycatcher family (it is not an empidonax as most people first think due to the size), "Beardless" because it actually lacks the rictal bristles that most of the other flycatchers have, and "Northern" because... well, there is also a "Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet" in South America that reaches up into Costa Rica. (Note that the northern edge of the range of this bird reaches some places in southeastern AZ and in the Rio Grande Valley in TX - and it ranges south into Central America where it overlaps a bit with its cousin)
After spending quite a bit of time with these other species, several of us checked again on the owl to see if the light was better for photography, and it had improved a bit, and the little owl was still there watching us "ooh" and "aah" over him and the other birds there.
At the next stop, the guides were hoping to use some owl tapes to call in some birds that had been scouted for in previous days, including a Tropical Parula that had been spotted in a mixed flock of warblers. The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl call did get some birds riled up, add a few of the more common warblers to our trip list (no parula), but more than that - it called in another owl! This one was a little harder to see as it stayed back pretty far. Then a Eastern Screech-Owl call garnered a response from a nearby Eastern Screech Owl. One of the guides was able to locate it, but it was barely worth the look, because it was only just a sliver of a look of the eye and a bit of ear tuft in a crack in a tree. Unfortunately, this time the leaders had a hard time keeping the mass of birders eager to add another tick to their trip list from rushing over to where they could try for a look - which was almost directly under where the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl had perched, that we were all so conscious of not disturbing only a few moments before. Pardon my saying so, but sometimes I am amazed at how little regard some birders have for the birds that they are so interested in - especially when another "tick" shows up. Don't get me wrong - I know I am pretty attached to my lists - ABA, Life, Year, and State (although I've not put too much emphasis on those last two lately) and I do like to get photos, but I like to think (and sincerely hope) that I am a little more conscious of the well-being of the birds we love. - OK enough of that.

We continued to bird and learn about the ranch throughout the rest of the morning, and tried for another of my target birds - Sprague's Pipit. It had been seen the day before ("crippling views" according to Jeff Gordon) and when we spread out across the field where they had been spotted, I chose the path that put the sun to my back - again hoping to get not only a good look but hopefully a pic. Turned out to be a poor choice though (who could've guessed) as the other group got some brief looks, and by the time we found out, it was time to head back to the bus and back to the convention center. (There are schedules to keep you know!)

Upon arriving back at the convention center, stepped out for a bite of lunch, relaxed a bit, then headed back to the festival to attend that evening's keynote "Tropical Topics" which was a lively tag-team presentation of Jeff Gordon (leader extraordinaire) and Xavier Munoz who spoke enthusiastically about birding in Ecuador, and the merits of eco-tourism - as well as the work that he and his wife have done through the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation and Neblina Forest. Afterward, we wandered out to the Birder's Bazaar, where there was table after table of vendors selling birding related items, as well as representatives from a variety of organizations, refuges, parks, etc. Also, each day between 5 and 6, there was a "Kiskadee Kordial" in the bazaar area, which served some great food - as well as Burning Hawk wines! By the way, if you have not heard of these folks yet - do yourself a favor and click that link now. Go ahead - I'll still be here when you come back. They are great folks, which have created some top-notch wines and who donate some of their profits towards "supporting key projects and organizations who play a critical and often undervalued role in birds of prey and energy system management."
Another advantage of the "Kiskadee Kordial" (aside from food and wine you ask? - yes!) is that it provides another opportunity to socialize and meet others that you'd either met on a previous trip, or to chat with others that maybe you didn't get to see otherwise. This particular evening, we had the opportunity to meet fellow blogger (I hate saying that because it seems such a limiting label, and especially so in this case) Laura Kammermeier of the Birds, Words, & Websites blog. Laura and I have 'talked' online via blogs, twitter, and facebook, but this was the first time meeting face-to-face, and we had a great chat about these social networking media, and photography, and the birds of the Rio Grande Valley.

But the evening was not quite over yet, our new friends Marci and Terry Fuller invited us over again for a party that evening at their place, and in addition to Liz and Jeff Gordon, I had the opportunity to meet such luminaries as Donald Kroodsma, Lang Elliott, and Jon Dunn, as well a whole host of other wonderful bloggers, birders and just generally cool people. (And believe me, these folks know how to party!)

Coming soon - day three, where we head to Salieno and Chapeno to bird, and I am a contestant on a game show...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

RGVBF - Day one

OK so it's now been a full week since the festival started and it's high time I started posting about the trip. I had planned on posting about each day on that evening, but many factors interfered with my plans. First - I was having a lot of fun"post-processing" my pics each evening (ie deleting all the blurry ones, duplicates, photos of empty branches, etc then bringing the acceptable ones into photoshop to crop/brighten etc.) Then there was the issue of intermittent internet service at the hotel. I called "tech support" a few times, but never was able to get it working consistently, and when I did have service, I was selfishly catching up on e-mail, facebook, following the local sightings, etc. And then I was often falling asleep at the computer since we were getting up at 4am each day. (And I wasn't sleeping very soundly because of the damn chigger bites that covered the lower 50% of my body)
Anyway - enough excuses! Let's get to it, shall we?

Day one of the festival. Since Pamela and I have been to the Rio Grande Valley in the past, and were pretty familiar with many of the local hot-spots like Bentsen, Santa Ana NWR, and Laguna Atascosa SP, we decided to use the festival as an opportunity to explore some of the locations a little further out of the way. Our first trip was to travel to Zapata and San Ygnacio - and to quote the festival literature: "Let's get right to it: White-collared Seedeaters" Yep, this was one of the birds I had wanted to get on my list. Not to mention, these areas a little farther north of the valley also provided an opportunity for ABA-countable Red-billed Pigeons and Muscovey Ducks - two more potential big 'ticks' for my list. We arrived at the convention center at 4:30am (along with a few dozen others) to board the bus for our 2.5 hour ride to look for these specialities. By the way, the folks that put the convention together seem to think of everything - at the convention center they had a cafe that was serving coffee starting at 4am! Our first attempt at the seedeaters at the pond near the library in Zapata (one of the more accessible and reliable spots for these birds) turned up only a potential fleeting glance for one or two people. (Which might have had something to do with the construction vehicles nearby.) While missing the seedeaters, I was (no surprise) watching woodpeckers like this female Ladder-backed:
After working it for an hour or so, we boarded the bus again, and continued on to San Ygnacio, where we met a local manager of a small sanctuary there along the Rio Grande. There were plenty of birds to be seen, including great looks at Verdin and Bewick's Wren, and great comparative views of Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, but none of the three target birds. Then it was time for lunch (bag lunch provided by the festival!) at a nice bluff that overlooked the river. The highlight here for me (beyond the wonderful view) was a Black Witch moth that joined us. (Here seen going for one of our leader's sandwich)

After lunch we had time for another try at the seedeaters at our first stop. We split the group up into a few groups and spread out to search for the birds. Within about 10 minutes, there were alerts from both ends of the pond that the bird had been spotted. We got around in time to see the female showing in pretty nice light, but we missed the male. She was quite active and lively, and since this was a life bird - I spent more time watching than photographing her, but here is a poor photo of my life White-collared Seedeater.
I tried searching for the male a bit longer, but the call had gone out that we had to leave, so we boarded the bus - a big group of happy birders. This little seedeater was a 'lifer' for just about everybody on the bus, and with the help of our leaders, everybody got it.

(Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon posted that everybody on his King Ranch trip had got great looks at Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and crippling looks at Sprague's Pipit - which whetted my appetite for our own Friday morning trip to the Ranch - to be posted soon!)