Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Top Ten Birds of the Decade

I've read quite a few birding blogs lately where people have listed their 10 best or favorite birds or birding moments of the past decade. I've been giving it a lot of thought myself, and I'm sure that each time I think of it I come up with a different rotation of birds. I haven't been birding long enough to fill a full ten years, so pretty much every bird in the first decade of this millennium was a "lifer." This is my attempt at picking out ten highlights of my birding experience.

10. I would be remiss if I failed to mention what many people call their "spark bird." I consider my spark bird the one that changed me from a casual bird watcher to a birder. The bird was a Roseate Spoonbill. I was vacationing in Florida with my girlfriend of that time and we'd gone to Ding Darling NWR. At the visitor center, I'd seen and read about the waders of the refuge, but I desperately wanted to see the spoonbills - bright pink with orange bodies, a bit of yellow-greenish color on the head, and red marble eyes, and that crazy bill. I didn't know much about tides and times that were best for seeing them, and missed them for a few days in a row. One morning I went very early, and following a path through the mangroves, I was rewarded with seeing waders almost as far as the eye could see, including hundreds of Roseate Spoonbills. I was hooked and haven't stopped birding since.

9. Now that I was hooked, when I returned home, I got involved in local Audubon and birding groups and joined trips as often as I could. On one trip, we were treated to exceptional looks of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers displaying and eventually mating. I think that this was the first time that I really stopped to watch any bird's behavior. And I think that watching this big beautiful pair's behavior was another tipping point in my birding history. This is where my fascination with the family of woodpeckers began.

8. While living in New Hampshire, a trip up the coast of Maine was really quite easy, and after reading about the Atlantic Puffins that you could see close up from blinds on Machias Seal Island, I made the trip. And even though the time was short due to inclement weather - the almost point-blank looks at these charismatic little birds was a memory of a lifetime.

7. August 2004, and one of the biggest birding news stories of the year was the first US sighting of a Red-footed Falcon which showed up on Martha's Vineyard. I was one of the lucky birders that made it out there to see it. This was also one of my first experiences with a mega-rarity. Birders from all over the US were there the weekend I went - and nobody was disappointed while I was there.

6. In January of 2005, I took my first vacation that was solely a birding trip - to Southeast Arizona. The entire trip was amazing (lots of thanks to my buddy Mark) with new and exciting birds being seen almost hourly - everything from Spotted Owls to Montezuma Quail to Sandhill Cranes and four new (to me at the time) species of woodpeckers. But the highlight of the trip to me was the Elegant Trogan the we really worked hard to see. I've seen others since, and maybe even better, but the first time you see one is always special.

5. A few months later that same year, we had an amazing owl year, where many northern species spread out a lot further south in search of food. I made two trips to Montreal that month to go see Great Grey Owls. Every moment in the presence of these beautiful hunters was wonderful.

4. My wife and I have taken several birding trips together since we started dating in January of 2006. To celebrate our first year together, we took a birding trip to Texas (the first of several) and while there we took advantage of the opportunity to see Whooping Cranes at Aransas NWR. Still endangered, it was breathtaking to see the big graceful birds on their wintering grounds.

3. Some of the trips we have taken, we've done with our friends Paul & Diana. The first trip we all did together was a Colorado Grouse Grand Slam led by Bill Drummond. We saw a lot of great birds on that trip, and managed to get all the grouse, both Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens as well as White-tailed Ptarmigan. The number three spot on this list is a tie - we worked really hard to see the ptarmigan at Loveland Pass making it a favorite, but the experience of seeing dozens of Greater Sage-grouse on a lek, strutting displaying and 'booming' only a dozen or so feet away was another experience of a lifetime.

2. Being the woodpecker fanatic that I am, you know that there would have to be more than one woodpecker related item on this list. In Feb/Mar of 2008, I was invited to spend a bit of time in Davis CA by our friends 'Pica' and 'Numenius' from the Feathers of Hope blog, whom we met on the Colorado trip. You see, at this point there was only one (regularly occurring) woodpecker in the US that I'd not seen - Nuttall's and they had them in their yard. Seeing the Nuttall's was great (as well as the Yellow-billed Magpies), but this spot is taken by a Red-breasted Sapsucker that allowed me to sit, watch and photograph him for what seemed like hours from very close range as he foraged along. It was one of thoise close-up and intimate moments that you occasionally experience while birding that really helps you to appreciate the avian world even more.

1. OK, I have to cheat here, because the number one spot is really an encompassing birding experience. Anybody who has birded in Trinidad and Tobago I think would be very hard pressed to pick a single favorite bird. With such amazing species as Oilbirds, Bearded Bellbirds, Common Pootoo, Channel-billed Toucans, Blue-crowned Motmots, Rufous-tailed Jacamars, Scarlet Ibis, and a blindingly colorful array of hummingbirds and tanagers, I just cannot pick a single favorite species. Every moment and every bird was as good as the next. With this experience, I can almost guarantee that the next decade will find me visiting central and south America quite a bit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Bloggerhead Kingbirds - We're back, baby!

If you've been stopping by this blog for a while, you might remember that last year, I assembled a team of bloggers to participate in Massachusetts Audubon's Annual Superbowl of Birding. (And for those of you who weren't following, you can check out what happened here). The Superbowl of Birding is an annual competition, similar to NJ's World Series of Birding, but with a few important differences. The main difference is that it takes place in New England in the heart of winter - this ain't no sissy competition. I should note that it is only a 12 hour competition, starting at 5am and going until 5pm - but that doesn't take the sting out of peering through a spotting scope against icy ocean winds, trying to make out an alcid a mile or so out. (I do make it sound so appealing, don't I?) Why, you might ask, would they even bother to hold a competition at this time of the year? Well, to be truthful, winter in New England has some fantastic birding opportunities - everything from owls (including Snowy which tops a lot of birder's lists, and surprises like last year's Northern Hawk Owl) to winter finches, to great looks at sea ducks, to gulls - yes, gulls. The last few years we've had lots of great gulls - last year we hosted not one, but TWO Ivory Gulls, the year before that we had Slaty-backed, we usually have a few Black-headed Gulls, as well as Iceland, Glaucous, Lesser Black-Backed, and even a Thayer's or two. I think that we can easily compete with Niagara Falls for a larophile's heart. (And let's not forget the famous Ross's Gull that showed up in Newburyport in the winter of '74 - and I, for one, think we are due for another visit.)

But the point of this post is not to extol the virtues of birding New England in the winter. No, I am blogging today to introduce you to this year's Bloggerhead Kingbird's team. The team has certainly felt the loss of a few of last year's members - namely Patrick and Quintus, who couldn't be with us this year (don't worry guys, we'll make plenty of fun of you even without you there) but that opened the door to invite a few new members. Joining us this year for the first time are:
John from DC Birding Blog
Andrew, the Birding Dude
Mike from the Feather and the Flower
Returning for another round of punishment... I mean mind-numbingly fantastic competitive birding:
Corey of 10000 Birds fame
Nate of the Drinking Bird AND the Nature Blog Network
(and, little ole' me)

Excluding myself, that's a pretty stunning line-up, isn't it? I am truly honored to be birding with these guys - the talent pool is something fierce.

And before I go too much further, I'd also like to give some props to Amy and Arthur at Birdorable, who did an amazing job designing our team logo and made things like t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and other great swag available to us:

Get over there and check them out - I am thoroughly convinced that with all the great designs they have come up with you will find something there that you have to have!)

So, I expect that this will be the first of several posts that you will see regarding the competition. Be sure to keep up with other team members to get their takes on things, and especially so on the day of the competition - we are bloggers after all, and I am sure there will be posts, as well as twitter and facebook updates throughout the day!

Oh yeah... and wish us luck.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly #68

Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Help with ID

This is something I expect a lot of birders experience, and certainly an aspect of my passion for birding that I enjoy. People around you - friends, family, co-workers, etc - begin to recognize that you are really into birds, and they start to tell you about something they saw or maybe want your help in identifying a bird. I like to think that there are quite a few people out there that are paying attention (or maybe more attention) to birds because of me.
My co-workers will tell me that"this morning I saw this huge bird - it must have been an eagle - swoop down across the highway and grab a rat or something" or "last night I saw a crane flying over - it looked like a dinosaur!" And I try to make sure that I keep the same excitement level when I tease a little more info out of them and explain that the Red-tailed Hawk is really a 'highway specialist' and a careful eye will often spot them almost daily perched in the trees on their commute, and that a crane although possible is really rare to see where, but that the Great Blue Herons have a rookery right in that area, and if they want to see them nesting I'd be happy to bring them near there with a spotting scope so they could get some really good looks at them.

Two people that I know are looking a little more closely at birds are my parents, and I love it! Over the years, I've received a few calls here and there while they are on vacation somewhere, with a description of something that they are looking at, and wondering what it is. From egrets to woodpecker to vultures, I've always been very confident in my id's. And last year, my dad, (who has always had an interest in photography also) picked up a digital SLR and they've sent me photos of stuff they've seen also when on vacation, that I've helped to id those too. Today they sent me a pic that I have to admit has me stumped. (And frankly, it's a tough pill to swallow.) At some level, I feel like I should know what I am looking at, but I just can't seem to piece it together. (Although I don't feel too bad that iBird on my iPhone wasn't able to get it either)

The photograph was taken along the California coast south of Big Sur this past July.

Click on the image to see a larger version in a new page.

Please be patient as I've not re-sized this one to try to keep as much detail as possible (even though it's a bit blurry), so it takes a bit longer to load. If you click on it to open in a new page, you can stop it loading on this one, and you can enlarge it even further there.

Any help on this one would really be appreciated...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wordless Wednesday 12/9/09

Texas Spiny Lizard

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

Get Wordless over at Wordless Wednesday

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Just some thoughts on the time of the year...

Anybody who has been birding for any period of time knows that the natural world acts in cycles. This means at different times of the year, you can almost count on seeing certain bird species. I definitely associate different times of the year with different families. For example, here in New England, spring brings us wonderful warblers, late summer brings us shorebirds, early fall brings a variety of sparrows, and throughout the winter we get a variety of interesting gulls and owls. But this time of the year - that is late autumn/early winter, I often associate with ducks. We are blessed with having a lot of ducks in our area at this time of year, and the over the last few weekends since returning from Texas (where there was no shortage of ducks either) we've been checking some of out expected annual species...
If you go back to my last two Bird Photography Weekly Posts, you'll see that I've had quite a bit of exposure to the two eiders that we get to see in New England. Staying with the sea ducks, New England is also a great place to see all three species of scoters - Black, White-winged and Surf. Unfortunately, a post-worthy photo of any of these species has eluded me. Another beautiful duck that has eluded my is the Long-tailed Duck (formerly called the Oldsquaw, but renamed because it was deemed politically incorrect) On the other hand, I've finally had a bit of luck with one of my favorites... Harlequin Ducks.

Each year, I make an effort to visit the Alewife Reservoir in Cambridge to see the Canvasback ducks that arrive each fall.
While there, one is also treated to good looks at Ruddy Ducks, as well as another of my favorites, the Ring-necked Duck - which I posit (and many many others have agreed) is a horribly mis-named bird. Seems like the obvious name would have been the Ring-billed Duck, right? So where did the name come from? Way back 'in the day' when birds were being given their common names - the birds were identified in the hand, (after being sighted down the barrel of a gun instead of a lens). And when this particular duck was held in the hand, a cinnamon colored neck ring was seen. Unfortunately, this particular field mark is difficult to see in the field, but every now and again, in good light, you can pick-up a hint of that cinnamon color:Other ducks that we've seen in the last two weeks include: Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Northern Shovellers, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Common, Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers, Black Ducks and of course, Mallards.

I don't expect the duck show to stop soon, and hope to post more pics of ducks as I get them.
(In fact, the Tufted Duck that had been seen for the last two years at the Turner Reservoir in RI is back again. Our friends Mark and Sheila saw it today, and might be posting about it on Sheila's blog soon, so keep an eye out for that. You can also visit Kim's blog to see some of the ducks she spotted today in Gloucester, MA)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wordless Wednesday 12/2/09

Golden-fronted Woodpecker lifts off

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

Get Wordless over at Wordless Wednesday