20 April 2016

Hawkeyes vs. eagle eyes

I wouldn't really consider us Iowans but Ashley and I DID live in Iowa from 2009-2011.  So when we decided to drive north to Iowa to see family and to bird, it was a bit strange to be "going home".

After a fun time visiting family (including two rambunctious nieces), we headed to central Iowa to look for a couple of things.  For some reason, the species that was at the top of the list for me was SMITH'S LONGSPUR, a species I hadn't seen since 2013 (2011 for Ashley).

This brightly-patterned species breeds in the high-arctic of Canada and Alaska but winters completely within a group of 4-7 states in the southern Great Plains (mostly Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas).  Every spring they shoot north and stopover in states like Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and a few others.  However, in my experience, this is one of the toughest Midwestern birds to see well.  Even when they're in the field in front of you, good luck in seeing them unobscured and out in the open.  How can a bird disappear in such short grass so well?!

So it was with great interest that Ashley and I visited Dunbar Slough in Greene County to see the flock of longspurs that was staging there.  It didn't take long in walking through the grass stubble field before we started kicking them up.... LOTS of them.  Here's one showing the striking white patch in the wings and orange undersides:
In the end, I estimated about 150 Smith's were present.  It was so cool to be surrounded by these secretive longspurs, something that probably not too many birders get to experience!

After slowly stalking several longspurs that were scurrying about, I eventually ended up with a few photos of a male:
Note the orange belly, breast, and throat (the only longspur to have an orange front).  Also the striking black-and-white pattern to the head.

In checking my records in eBird, this was only the 8th time I'd seen this species in my entire life.  Geographically-speaking, 6 of those 8 times were in Iowa while the other 2 were in Kansas (in fact, I saw my first Smith's in Kansas back in 2007).  

Besides the longspurs, Dunbar Slough had some other migrants and newly-arrived breeders around as well.  For example, I heard this awful screeching sound just to remember that YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS breed around there.  Sure enough, we spied this distant male setting up camp in the cattails:
There were some mudflats on 270th Street that yielded 6 shorebird species including BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS, both GREATER and LESSER YELLOWLEGS, and these 3 DUNLIN (flagged in eBird):
We left Dunbar after 2-3 hours.  Turns out, I scored 16 new county birds which pushed my Greene County list into the 100+ species club.

After Dunbar Slough, we swung back through our former hometown of Ames just to see how things had changed.... and some parts had changed A LOT.  A tallgrass field where I once found a Short-eared Owl had been completely leveled and converted into apartment buildings.  Lovely.

We even parked and walked along the creekside path that we lived on back in the day.  Although we didn't even break 20 species on this particular walk (checklist here), it was fun walking down memory lane like that.  It was also very saddening to think of all the hundreds of times we walked that path and DIDN'T KEEP DETAILED RECORDS.  One of my biggest regrets was not using eBird earlier in life, especially in Iowa.  For various reasons, I felt like using eBird was actually discouraged!  I'm glad to say that I've moved on from that view and saw the light (even though I fear much of Iowa remains in the dark, so to speak).

We ventured farther south, picking up a new county or two, and ended up at the Lucas Unit of the Stephens State Forest.  Although the birding was kind of slow (a singing waterthrush was the best we could do), the butterflies were out and active!  One of the highlights for me was this GRAY COMMA in nice light:
Similar to other commas and Question Mark, note only 2 dark spots on the hindwing.

There were several AMERICAN LADIES about too:
Acting on a tip from Aaron, we paid special attention to a few duskywings we stumbled on.  Apparently this area is a good spot to find SLEEPY DUSKYWINGS... and he was right.  Here's a shot of this lifer butterfly for me:
It was hanging out with another dark duskywing that I suspect is a JUVENAL'S DUSKYWING:
Do you think they look the same?  Look carefully for glossy white spots near the tip of the forewing.  See how the SLEEPY lacks them?

Content with our butterflies, we moved on.

As a slight content detour, do you recognize this painting?  You probably do.  It's called "American Gothic" and was painted by Grant Wood in 1930:
Now take a look at our below photo:
See anything familiar?  Yep, this IS the actual American Gothic house!  We stopped in because hey, it's kinda interesting, right?  There's an impressive visitor center and everything in this small town of Eldon, Iowa.  And no, Ashley and I didn't take the offer of dressing up in the outfits to have our picture taken in front of it.  Moving on...

Continuing our way south, we headed to Lacey-Keosauqua State Park in southeast Iowa (Van Buren County).  It was a pleasant spring afternoon in the wooded valleys:
We ventured south of the park for a few hours to pay attention to some grasslands.  Our target was the uncommon and declining HENSLOW'S SPARROW which we found pretty easily:
We camped at the state park that night but scrammed first thing in the morning and started birding our way through the park.  The sun getting ready to come up over the river made for a picturesque start to the day:
It didn't take much to realize that NORTHERN PARULAS, YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS, and LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSHES were common; the songs of the latter rang off the valleys and streambeds throughout the park.  Here's a blurry photo of one that we laid eyes on:
However, the rarest sighting was this TENNESSEE WARBLER:
Although not rare here later in the spring, this particular individual broke the previous early-arrival date in Iowa by 3 days!  These early-late dates have weathered a lot of years of birding, editing, revising, and so breaking one of those records is always notable.  Thankfully I had my camera on my shoulder and was ready for it!

We continued down the road and decided to bird various units of the Shimek State Forest in Lee County.  Each of the units seemed to be dominated by YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS like this one at the Donnellson Unit:
At the Croton Unit, we had more luck with butterflies than warblers (although a singing BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER was nice).  Here's a SPRING AZURE, a tiny but widespread species during the spring months:
The highlight for me at the Croton Unit was this HENRY'S ELFIN that we found on the creek bank:
This small brown butterfly is basically a woodland hairstreak but I had seen them only once before so I was happy to see another.

Lastly, Ashley and I pulled up to the famous Argyle Junkyard and before we could even stop the car and get all the windows down, the resident BEWICK'S WREN was singing out in the open!
Although it may not look like much, this is one of the rarest breeding birds in Iowa!  Although populations used to be more widespread in the East, there is only a place or two birders can hope to see this species in Iowa anymore.  We felt very lucky to see this guy, a bird many folks try for and miss.

Anyway, that's a wrap for our recent Iowa travels!

11 April 2016

County map update!

I'm pretty sure the nerd circle I'm in that finds this kind of thing interesting is quite small.  But does that matter?  I absolutely love maps, I always have.  I remember digging through bins of dusty, outdated maps at my college library and the staff selling them to me for $1.  Looking like some kind of mad sailor with scrolls sticking out of his pack, I took them back to my dorm room and plastered them up on the walls.  Still to this day, I'm not sure those bleak dorm room walls have had a better use.

Fast-forward many years to today, now I get to combine bird lists with maps which, for me, satisfies some dark, inner desire.  Any way to visualize travel geographically and I'm on it.

So what you see below is the latest version of my county lists (or you can click here to go to the website).  Since the last time I updated this map in February (map viewed here), I've added 32 new counties for a total of 732 county lists.  In another category, I added 625 new county ticks which brings my total to 13,638.

Although it's hard to make out much change, what jumps out to me is the new complete path running from Missouri to Tennessee.  There are also some new counties in Texas and Florida.


09 April 2016

Leavin' the Sunshine -- Part 3

By this point on our trip we were quite thankful that we had at least found the anis at Lox and the continuing Zenaida Dove.  It was looking like we might miss our other targets which, as we all know, sometimes happens when you bird.  It just does.

Our last day at Long Key State Park started like the previous one.  We rolled out of the tent, stood up, and were greeted by this sunrise:
We begrudgingly started birding the row of campsites yet again, our third morning in a row.  Because we were actual campers there, we were allowed to walk around inside the park before 8:00 which is when the park opens to the public.  However, 8:00 AM came and went and we saw no sign of any other birders.  No matter, no matter, we continued to wander the campground and made plans for packing up and leaving.

But then... I heard a call note.  We tracked it down annnnnd..... waterthrush, of course.  Stupid birds.  For the past 2-3 days we had been reacting to every little chip, tssp, and lisssp hoping that it was the grassquit.  At this point we had become rather desensitized; I mean, we even heard cardinals doing weird call notes that we had never heard before.  Depressing.

We found a little pocket of avian activity down around campsite 8 and 9 and we both went on alert when we saw a differently-shaped bird pop up.  Was THIS the grassquit?  No, not even close:
This gray-capped, greenish guy was sporting nice black malars... it was a BLACK-WHISKERED VIREO.  Although they breed in the mangroves of the keys and south Florida every summer, this was a species we had seen only twice before (the reason for that, very simply, is that we rarely visit Florida during the summer months).  So we enjoyed that sighting quite a lot!

We also bumped into this COMMON GROUND-DOVE in the area.  Not really rare but it was the first one we had seen at the campground:
A few campsites down the row I heard another call note.  Again, I REALLY thought it sounded good but judging from our past experience, it probably wasn't the grassquit.  But up popped a bird back in the veg.  Even naked eye, we knew exactly what it was... it WAS the BLACK-FACED GRASSQUIT!  In some crazy way, we had just stumbled into this tiny, drab rarity that we had completely given up on.  Ash reminded me pretty quickly "TAKE A PHOTO".  I did.  It isn't great but it's all the proof we needed to be on cloud nine:
The bird didn't put on a great show, to be honest; it never came out into the open and it was in view for maybe 15 seconds in total.  But still, you would find NO complaining from us!

This female grassquit belongs in the West Indies.  Although they're quite rare in the ABA area and is considered a Code 4 rarity, there have been 3 ABA records in the last 4 years.  Together, with the Yellow-faced Grassquit Ashley and I snagged in Texas 5 years ago, I suppose we have the ABA grassquit sweep now?

Anyway, with that Hail Mary snag of the grassquit, our work in the keys was definitely done and we went back to the campsite to pack up.  Before we could make much progress, I heard a WHIMBREL calling from somewhere.  Ash, who had the camera, managed to snag a photo of it as it passed by.  I love me some curlews!
The anoles were everywhere.  Look on any stump or post and you'd probably find one or two.  I truly had never seen so many!  Here's one fanning its red/orange dewlap from the post in our campsite:
Last but not least, we were packing up when this young YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON decided to, oh, you know, walk down the beach right next to us!  Silly thing.  Night-herons are often a bit more secretive than this:
Now that we had left the campground, we were officially homeless for the night.  What to do?  Where to go?  Thankfully, those questions had been answered by what we saw on our phones... the eBird rarity email had come through and there was a report of a Code 3 AMERICAN FLAMINGO at a state park south of Fort Myers.  Really?!  We had given up on this target because the reports of this bird had really dried up.  But hey, we were only 3-4 hours from this potential ABA bird... so we headed that way.

Fast forward several hours (and incidental county ticks!), we pulled into Lovers Key State Park to find it inundated with hundreds of beach-goers.  Ugg!  Surely there would be no flamingo on the beach with all those humans scampering about, right?

We walked out to the beach where it was said to be hanging out and saw, naked-eye, a scope and tripod set up on the beach (turns out that would be Casey.  Hi Casey!).  Behind the tripod though?  It appeared that there was an enormous pink bird standing on the sand beach near the gull/tern flock!  No way.  It WAS the AMERICAN FLAMINGO!  We hurried that way and Casey mentioned in passing there was no need for the scope we were hauling.  She was right... this flamingo has grown so accustomed to people passing by (and snapping selfies with it) that it allowed pretty close approach:
Crop in a little bit on photos and you're looking face-to-face with a very impressive bird!
This American Flamingo has been floating around the Fort Myers area for some time now, spanning into previous years even.  Although many flamingos seen in Florida are pets or released birds, it's thought that this bird, like many that wander south Florida, is wild.

If you stepped back and took a photo of the tern/gull flock, pay attention to the shoreline behind them:
See the pink lawn ornament?!

Another thing you might notice with that photo is the incoming storm.  The rumbles of thunder made me curious enough to check the doppler on my phone and... holy crap, some massive t-storms were headed right for us!  That kinda put us in hyper drive.  Instead of gawking at the flamingo for another hour, we had to get moving.  Cloud-to-ground lightning wasn't far off... and here I am on the beach with a 6 foot metal Bogen tripod on my shoulder!

I quickly snapped a few pictures of some birds nearby.  First up, a ROYAL TERN sporting the "balding" look of its nonbreeding plumage:
Some of the ROYTs had more black coming in though.  See the difference?
A couple of smaller terns were also loafing there, sandwiched between others... the sharply-marked SANDWICH TERN:
Note the black bill with a yellow tip.  ID = easy peasy.

Mixed in with the tern flock were a few shorebirds as well.  Given the conditions and the rush I was in, I was happy with how this WILLET shot turned out:
After that though, we started a beeline back towards the parking area.

... but then heard a soft note of a plover somewhere.  Ash spotted them, a pair of WILSON'S PLOVERS running, stopping, running, stopping.... typical plover behavior.  She snapped a nice photo of one of them:
But after that, we really did boogie out of there.  Thankfully we made it to the car before most of the rain hit.  We sat there, relieved.  We were both surprised and pleased that somehow, against all odds, we came to Florida and nailed 4 out of 4 targets.  It was a good reminder that we don't miss EVERY rarity that we chase (remember earlier this winter when we missed everything?).

Our time in south Florida was at an end.  We ventured up to an area north of Orlando to hang out with my grandparents for a few days.  Just out back of their place, however, we spied this little gator sunning itself:
I looked around for big momma but we didn't see any others.  We decided we wouldn't jump into the canal (actually, that was never on the docket anyway, we're not idiots).

We took advantage of the nice weather though and visited a nearby eBird hotspot in Lake County.  A park in Mt. Dora (near Gilbert Park) had a nice boardwalk next to a lake and so we took a stroll.  At one point we spied this Southern Black Racer:
The dragonflies were pretty active too.  This PRINCE BASKETTAIL was notable for me only because it was the first time I had photographed one actually perched:
Of course the birds were interesting too.  For example, this PILEATED WOODPECKER was foraging above our heads so closely, it must have been the closest I've ever been to a Pileated:
It was going to town on some rotting wood right above us which would then rain down on us.  I held up my hands and managed to catch a few chunks of wood personally removed by this giant woodpecker.

I also managed to get a nice shot of some feathers from a nearby bird... but can you name the species?
It belongs to our most familiar heron, the GREAT BLUE HERON.  I took this next photo of the same bird while it was preening and despite the horrid look with its eye, I promise it's not dying!  I suppose it's just enjoying some sun and scratches?
Anyway, we ended with 30-40 species for our 90 minute walk (checklist can be seen here).

But then it really was time to say goodbye to the Sunshine State altogether.  With our sand-filled tent packed in the trunk, a laptop loaded with photos of new and exciting birds, and sunburns on our feet... we drove north.  When will be back?  It's hard to say.  For now, though, adios.

07 April 2016

Remain in Sunshine -- Part 2

We woke up early the next morning at Long Key State Park.  When camping, it's hard not to wake up when the birds start singing and the room lightens automatically.

We hopped out and started beating the same path again; up and down the line of campsites.  We didn't know how long we'd last as we continued to look for the grassquit but after the 9 hour effort the day before, we weren't particularly eager to spend all day doing the same thing.

So with that, our eagerness for a change in scenery took over and we decided to make our way south to the Key West Botanical Gardens.  After all, it was there that I saw my first Western Spindalis on a previous visit so who knows what other rarity might show up?

Turns out, it was pretty quiet and quite warm at the gardens.  Although there wasn't much in the way of birds (checklist viewed here), butterflies were definitely active.  One of the most common were the CASSIUS BLUES:
It's hard to judge their size in a photo like that but they're tiny, smaller than my thumbnail.

Another common butterfly in those parts is the GULF FRITILLARY.  Although much larger than the previous species, this one looks way worse for wear:
Ashley spotted this skipper darting around so I snapped a picture just to find out later that it was a new lifer for me, a HAMMOCK SKIPPER (Polygonus leo):
There were a few dragonflies zooming around too which was no surprise.  This particular one has me stumped though... it's either a THREE-STRIPED DASHER or SPOT-TAILED DASHER.  Any input???  Either way, it'll be a new species for me.  :-)
We eventually left the gardens (but not after meeting Claire.  Hi Claire!) and decided to wander back up the keys birding at a few spots along the way.  

The Saddlebunch Keys (accessed by Sugarloaf Key) was were I saw my very first Mangrove Cuckoo during a Spring Break trip 10 years ago in 2006.  We stopped by and, well, we were successful once more!  We managed to hear two MANGROVE CUCKOOS which was only the 3rd time I'd ever had this species.  So yeah, we were pretty stoked for that!

At this point in the season PRAIRIE WARBLERS are quite ubiquitous.  We would often hear several at each spot including this one just down the road from the cuckoo spot:
The sunny afternoon brought out the butterflies in force.  The flower-ladened roadside shoulders were lined with hundreds (maybe thousands) of GREAT SOUTHERN WHITES swirling around.  Here's one of them:
There were so many ripe for the taking that we found a flock of 9 GRAY KINGBIRDS all together on the power lines picking them off one-by-one.

There were a few species besides the whites though; here's a much-smaller CERAUNUS BLUE:
I was hoping it would be one of the rarer blues but alas, not this time!  I clearly needed to do more homework on where to go to find the less common bflies.

Another common species was the MANGROVE BUCKEYE, a new lifer for me:
At first I didn't know what to look for on these buckeyes; the COMMON BUCKEYE is somewhat similar.  However, once you know what to look for, the ID is pretty straightforward.  Do you see the big eyespot on the forewing?  It is completely circled in orange for MANGROVE and only partly circled in white for COMMON.

There were also some skippers around which caused a little bit more confusion (skippers can be tough!).  However, after consulting the books we're pretty convinced this one is an OBSCURE SKIPPER: 
Anyway, we eventually returned to Long Key State Park to go to sleep... I MEAN to keep looking for the grassquit.  :-(

We returned with enough light to do several more strolls up and down the campsites for the grassquit but again we struck out.  At this point, we were more interested in scoping the mudflats right offshore our campsite (#59, for future reference!).  Mixed in with the dozens of LEAST SANDPIPERS, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS, and SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS were several PIPING PLOVERS as well.  Included were a couple of banded birds which, with a shorebird ecologist background, Ashley and I were eager to document and report.  Here's the first bird:
Turns out, this banded plover was captured as an adult on the Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota last June.  How cool is that?!

Here's the other banded plover we managed to resight:
This particular plover was banded as a chick in New Jersey also last June.  It's a small world, too, of shorebird ecologists.  Turns out people I know head up these efforts (shout out to Michelle S. and Kashi D!).

As the sun continued to drop, the MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS continued cruising up and down the beach.  Even in low light, they cast a magnificent silhouette:
So with that, another day had passed.  No grassquit.  At least the campsite view didn't disappoint:
We decided to leave the next morning.  We'd give the grassquit one more chance before we migrated north and out of Florida.  Stay tuned!