24 September 2017

Heathrow Runway Runaway

I might backtrack a bit.  You see, before I ever set foot in France, I had already started by doing some birding in Europe.  Not much, mind you, but it was at least a start.

This all came about because I had an 11 hour layover in London.  Annoying, you say?  Not exactly!  Being my first time to Europe, I was actually excited for the long layover... I was going to leave the airport, try to see some birds, and be able to color in a least a small part of my eBird map.

But first... I had to get to London.  Cue the 9 hour red-eye flight from Dallas.  By the time we were descending into London, the sky was starting to brighten:
This is where Bird Guides comes into the story (www.birdguides.com).  Because I a) was jetlagged, b) hadn't a clue about getting around London, and c) wanted to see some birds, I decided to give those guys a shout and ended up hiring a guide for the day.  David Campbell, a top-notch and super-sharp young guy who works for them, picked me up from the airport and we were off.

Our destination was the Oare Marshes, an oft-birded hotspot in north Kent.  Here's a pin showing the spot, generally east of London:
The drive eastward over on the M25 was decently quick, we were at the marshes in 90 minutes or so.

It didn't take long to realize that I wasn't in the Midwest of the US anymore... BLACK-HEADED GULLS were everywhere, as one would expect.  This one that flew by was even banded (or ringed, as they would say in Britain):
... and of course, even the BARN SWALLOWS look quite a bit different from ours:
The above Barn Swallow is of the nominate "white-bellied" subspecies, Hirundo rustica rustica, which is the widespread and expected subspecies around there.  The ones we have back here in the states have redder underparts and are of the "American" subspecies Hirundo rustica erythrogaster.

I especially enjoyed the spot for the shorebirds (they call them "waders"), we ended up tallying 18 species.  I was kept pretty busy with enjoying my first ever COMMON REDSHANKS, EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER, EURASIAN CURLEW, etc.  The avocets too... wow, I'm a big fan of their PIED AVOCET:
The shorebird spectacle really was amazing though.  Here's just a section of one of the flocks roosting in a shallow lagoon/pond area.  Most of these are COMMON REDSHANKS mixed with NORTHERN LAPWINGS, maybe some DUNLIN, MALLARDS, BLACK-HEADED GULLS, etc:
Another one of the abundant shorebirds present were the EUROPEAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS.  Most of this flock are indeed goldies:
The above shorebirds were often set into motion by other migrants, ones with somewhat nefarious objectives, such as PEREGRINE FALCON, EURASIAN HOBBY, OSPREY, and EURASIAN KESTREL.  Here's the latter:
Quite a change from Missouri, eh?  The cool temps, tidal coastlines, it was a nice way to spend 5-6 hours:
We ended up seeing a variety of things like COMMON CUCKOO, MEADOW PIPIT, BEARDED REEDLING (heard), REED BUNTING, LESSER WHITETHROAT, and many more.  In fact, we ended up tallying nearly 80 species.  Here's the checklist from our outing.

And then it was back to the airport where I hopped on a plane for France.  As our plane departed Heathrow, initially westward, I snapped this photo showing one of the monster traffic circles (no, we don't have those around here!):
Compare that view to this view from Google Maps:
Nice match, eh?  The lake on the right, the one with the very rounded edges, is Wraysbury Reservoir.  The lake back and to the left is King George VI Reservoir.  And the motorway heading away from you is the M25 heading south.

So, as you can see on the resulting eBird map of my UK travel... we snagged 79 species on the day:
It also highlights my need for a lot more coverage in the area!  Perhaps someday I'll be able to return and actually travel a bit more.

Anyway, major thanks to David for taking me out despite me being rather zombie-like and completely useless.  You can (and should!) check out his blog here.

20 September 2017

FRANCE!

I hadn't been this excited about a tour in quite a while.  Not only did I finally get to bridge the gap and make it to Europe, I got to spend 1-2 weeks in the south of France enjoying some spectacular birds, great good, a fun group, and scenery like this:
We all flew into Montpellier where the tour began.  If history is your thing, some of the buildings in Montpellier date back to 1363.  Sure, that's old... but the first record of the city actually dates back to 985.  Seriously now, that's a lot of history!

We started birding just around the airport where we enjoyed a flock of LITTLE BUSTARDS, our first EUROPEAN ROLLER, and both COMMON and ALPINE SWIFTS.  Here's the latter, a beautiful, boldly-patterned, and big swift:
We spent the next several days birding the Camargue region along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  One of the many highlights was seeing gull species like SLENDER-BILLED, BLACK-HEADED, LITTLE, and MEDITERRANEAN.  Here's the latter, albeit a rather ratty/molty one:
Alongside the gulls out in the salt flats were several species of terns as well including SANDWICH, CASPIAN, BLACK, and COMMON.  Here's a Common Tern flying over with a snack:
In a crazy TERN of events, we stumbled on an orange-billed tern roosting in a big flock... but what was it?  We initially suspected Lesser Crested, a crazy rare but possible species.  It wasn't until later, after passing some pics around, that its true identity surfaced (thanks to TJ and DG)... it was actually an ELEGANT TERN!  Yes, the same species from the west coasts of North and South America.  Woah.

We bumped into several fun shorebird species out in the flats too including PIED AVOCET, BLACK-WINGED STILT, COMMON REDSHANK, LITTLE RINGED PLOVER, COMMON RINGED PLOVER, RUDDY TURNSTONE, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, EURASIAN CURLEW, LITTLE STINT, and even a RED-NECKED and RED PHALAROPE (both of which are quite rare).

Certainly bigger and flashier were the GREATER FLAMINGOS that were common as ever:
Being in September and being situated on the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea, a lot of south-bound migrating raptors were piling up along the shore (many raptors don't like flying over big bodies of water).  One of the most noticeable species were the EURASIAN SPARROWHAWKS, a sharp little accipiter:
We enjoyed other raptors like OSPREY, COMMON BUZZARD, EURASIAN MARSH-HARRIER, EURASIAN KESTREL, and this awesome EURASIAN HOBBY:
Another species I found interesting was the SHORT-TOED SNAKE-EAGLE.  We ended up seeing 3 or so on tour... here's the first one:
It took us a while to track one of these down but in the end, we did.  It's the slender-winged MONTAGU'S HARRIER gliding low over some fields:
We also worked some rather barren, open-country looking for more specialties and we eventually found things like LESSER KESTREL, LITTLE OWL, EURASIAN THICK-KNEE, and EURASIAN DOTTEREL.  We also found some cool larks including this EURASIAN SKYLARK:
... and this CRESTED LARK:
In the brushier habitats we stirred up other new species like SOUTHERN GRAY SHRIKE, CORN BUNTING, RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGE.

But before long, our time there had come to a close and it was time to drive east towards the Pyrenees.  We ate our picnic lunch at a roadside rest... but not just any roadside rest.  Get a load of what was visible from there:
Yep, that's the walled city of Carcassonne!  There's a lot of human history in the area, some of it has been dated back to 3500 BC.  The actual hilltop location was fortified by the Romans around 100 BC.  Crazy stuff!

Another stop on the way to the Pyrenees was at a rest area specifically to look for this sharply-marked vulture:
This high-flying species is an EGYPTIAN VULTURE and we barely caught up to any before they migrated south and out of France.

We spent the next 4 nights in the little town of Gรจdre up in the French Pyrenees.  It's a neat little town with very different architecture... like these doors and windows:
We started our birding the following morning and enjoyed long looks at several ALPINE ACCENTORS, a high-elevation specialist:
Staying with the alpine theme, here's an ALPINE MARMOT, a species that was reintroduced to the Pyrenees in 1948:
In the same area as the above marmot was this stunner perched up on a rock:
This is a RUFOUS-TAILED ROCK-THRUSH and it certainly was one of my favorites of the trip.

When looking up, you might find yourself face to face with a giant carrion-eater of high elevations.  I was rather impressed by the many EURASIAN GRIFFONS; their wingspans can top 9 feet!
In fact, they kind of put our little Turkey Vultures to shame.  Here's another look:
But you keep looking up to sort through the griffons.  The main reason?  Most likely to hope to see the nearly-mythical LAMMERGEIER, or BEARDED VULTURE as they're now called.  We did that for a while before, amazingly, one came drifting out of the fog.  Here's one, my favorite species of the trip:
This species can be hard to see, living up in the high elevations on remote and inaccessible cliffs.  Lammergeiers will sometimes find bones of carcasses, carry them high into the air, and then drop them on rocks so that they shatter.  They then swoop down and gobble up the bone fragments!  Yes, this bird actually eats bones.  Incredible.

Although this isn't a tour that nets you a dozen species of woodpeckers or anything, we still had some quality ones.  Imagine a woodpecker, slightly bigger than our Pileated, that was ALL BLACK except for some red on the head.  What you have there is the sneaky BLACK WOODPECKER!  We had several fly over but we eventually tracked down a perched one:
One of the bigger surprises of the tour came when this BLUETHROAT popped up near Gavarnie!
Here in the states we have the Brown Creeper.  Over there, you could see Short-toed Treecreeper and Eurasian Treecreeper.  Although the two are rather similar to each other, there are some subtle differences in bill length, toenail length, patterning in the wing, distribution, etc.  Here's a EURASIAN TREECREEPER that performed quite well for us:
Nearby, a little flock of kinglets caught our attention.  Except, they aren't called kinglets there.  There are Firecrests and Goldcrests.  This one, with the pale eyering, is a GOLDCREST:
This tour yielded several species of tits.  Although we call them "chickadees" and "titmice" here in the states, overseas they're called tits.  One of the most common species of tit was the GREAT TIT with the black cap, black throat, and yellow underparts:
We saw several others including COAL TIT, EUROPEAN BLUE TIT, CRESTED TIT, and several LONG-TAILED TITS.  Here's the latter showing that nice, long tail:
In terms of pipits on tour, we saw TAWNY PIPIT several times near the Camargue, many WATER PIPITS in the high elevations of the Pyrenees, and this lone TREE PIPIT on one of our final days.  Lucky for us, it didn't seemed to be bothered by us at all:
It shouldn't surprise you that I kept an eye out for new dragonflies and butterflies along the way as well.  Here's a BLACK-TAILED SKIMMER that chose a less-than-scenic perch: 
If you want scenic vistas though, this tour really was spectacular.  Here are a couple of views from our time in the Pyrenees:

So with that, our tour was a wrap.  It was fun adding some flight lines on my map across the Atlantic, too.  You can see how my flights came in via London and then departed via Madrid:
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed a few of the photos from this France tour.  This tour is a popular one so if you're interested, don't hesitate to contact our office.  You can find more info about the tour here on our website.

31 August 2017

Arizona: Put some "Second Spring" in your step

You know the drill... I'm here trying to catch up!  I have a few days at home before I'm whisked away to co-lead another Field Guides tour so I thought I'd drop in a few photos from the Arizona tour John Coons and I ran in late July.

Wait... Arizona in the middle of summer?  Are you crazy?!  Not quite (but I might be heading there).  The "Second Spring" tour, as you'll often hear it referred to, focuses on southeastern Arizona during the monsoon season which is marked by thunderstorms that rejuvenate the dry deserts and can turn them into lush green landscapes.

How exactly does that work?  Simply put, the monsoon season is a shift of winds.  Typically the winds that blow from the west and southwest into that part of the state are dry.  However, in July and August, the winds shift to the south and southeast which brings up moisture from the Gulf of California.  That moisture, coupled with the heat of summer, fuels the monsoon thunderstorms.

What that means for birds is a new bounty of food and shelter.  Many species actually begin singing and end up breeding during this lush period of the summer.  The grasslands turn into a gorgeous vistas full of singing birds.  It's spring for them... a second spring.

I flew into Tucson a bit early to do some scouting.  We visited the De Anza Trail where I hoped to find a brand new ABA bird... my all-time nemesis, the ROSE-THROATED BECARD.  This time, the nemesis fell... and HARD.  Check it out:
Pretty amped from that success, it was pretty easy to stay psyched for our incoming clients.  We birded near Tucson our first afternoon and came face-to-face with some gorgeous desert species like this BLACK-THROATED SPARROW:
Another bird you're likely to see in that part of the US is the tiny and scaly-looking INCA DOVE:
The grasslands I mentioned above really are beautiful during this time of year.  Here's the view early one morning just downslope from Portal:
Those grasslands host species like CRISSAL THRASHER, SCALED QUAIL, CASSIN'S SPARROW, and BOTTERI'S SPARROW, the latter being a regional specialty.  However, it's not until the monsoons hit that the Botteri's become obvious as they sing from low perches.  Here's one doing just that:
Of course, there is a downside of the monsoon season... the unpredictable storms that can dump huge amounts of water in a short amount of time!  Here is a road that is normally dry but became an impassable river after a storm!
It wouldn't be a tour of southern Arizona without spending time looking for ELEGANT TROGONS!  John, a long-time resident of AZ and our lead guide, had their locations dialed in.  Beautiful looks were had by all!
We spent an evening at Mary Jo's feeders in Ash Canyon, a must-stop place if you're ever in the area.  Her feeders were hosting a couple of the rare LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRDS much to the delight of all the birders present:
Note that the name is "Lucifer" and not "Lucifer's".  It's not named AFTER someone (or anything religious), it's named after the word lucifer which, in Latin, means "light bringing" or "morning star".  Clearly the hummingbird is an attractive, light-bringing bird!

Although Field Guides has a tour specifically targeting the nightbirds of Arizona, we poked around for nightbirds on this tour too.  We ended up with a nice collection of owls including this WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL in Miller Canyon:
In the above photo, note the pale bill.  Compare that to the dark bill on this WESTERN SCREECH-OWL near Portal:
If you've seen a MEXICAN CHICKADEE in the US, you almost certainly saw it in the Chiricahuas of southeastern Arizona.  This regional specialty put on a great show for our tour and we saw many high up in the Chiricahuas:
Spending a fair bit of time leading tours in Arizona this year, I've heard about one species in particular over and over again... one quail that jumps to mind when thinking of targets.  The secretive (and often hard to spot) MONTEZUMA QUAIL.  Some people have looked for these for years without luck.  Our tour, I must say, was tuned in because we found these cryptic quail 5 different times in less than 2 hours!  Here's one of the 9 birds we spotted in Cave Creek:
It has a pretty intricate pattern on the head, huh?

It might not be a stop-press kind of bird but we spent a lot of time around the WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES that call the dry Arizonan mountains home.  Once or twice, they perched up nicely within reach of our cameras:
Another regional specialty of Arizona, and a target one is likely to have when you visit, is the THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD.  There has been a pair nesting in Portal lately and we connected with the pair one morning:
 Let's talk Greek for a second...

"Phain" = Shine or shining
"Peplum" = Robe

What do you get?  The PHAINOPEPLA is a silky-flycatcher with a very sleek-looking robe, one could say:
Perhaps one of the most limited breeding ranges of any bird species that nests in the US belongs to the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW.  In fact, most years birders have to take the bumpy road out to the remote California Gulch to hope to see them.  We made the drive and were rewarded with excellent views of this AZ specialty:
In recent years, southern Arizona has hosted a couple of breeding pairs of BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHERS.  This species, which can be completely absent from the US in some years, performed well for us and we ended up seeing at least 2 different birds.  Here's one from Montosa Canyon:
The rarest species we saw was this buffy flycatcher high in the Huachucas:
This aptly-named gem is a TUFTED FLYCATCHER and it's only one of a few that have been found in the US.  If you follow the ABA codes of ranking rarities... it's a Code 5, essentially the highest rarity ranking possible.  Lucky for us, a pair or two have been in Arizona in recent years and we caught up to one of them much to the delight of everyone present.

When one thinks of BROWN PELICANS, they often think of them soaring along the coast of an ocean or something.  This one, however, had found a sewage treatment pond near the small town of Amado.  I can't imagine there was a ton of food for it there... which might explain why it was sitting on the bank asleep:
The forests of these southern Arizonan "Sky Islands" host so many other cool creatures too.  Here's a BEYER'S SCARAB, a huge species of beetle that is found in Mexico and southern Arizona:
Not to creep anyone out or anything... but how cool is this view of the Skull Eyes caves in Cave Creek?  Pretty eerie, huh?
Anyway, it was a fun tour filled with awesome birds, nice scenery, and a fabulous show of the monsoons of Arizona!  Props go out to John, as always, for his expertise in the area.

You can find out more about this particular tour on our webpage by clicking here.  Do it!  The dates are already posted for our 2018 and 2019 Second Spring tours.