19 June 2017

Maine

Did you know that Field Guides has a tour to Maine???  Yep!  Lucky for me, I recently joined Eric Hynes and we ran this popular tour together.  Being my first Field Guides tour to the area, I was eager to see what the northeast had in store.

We used Portland as our hub and man, it's nice working with a small airport like that!  After we all arrived and got settled in, we set out for a couple of days of birding there in southern Maine.  It was really fun getting species like UPLAND SANDPIPER, BLUE-WINGED WARBLER, and PRAIRIE WARBLER in the plains, not to mention many more coastal species near the Atlantic.  We visited several spots along the coast netting us species like the dainty LEAST TERN:
As is often the case... where there are Least Terns, there are PIPING PLOVERS.  Well, it was true in this case, at least; we had beautiful looks at this pale plover species:
It was along the coast that we found a nice flock of sandpipers swirling around a beach, feeding feverishly on the sand before taking flight again and again.  But what species were involved?  We got to work sorting through things.  Mixed in with the 100+ SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS were a couple of WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPERS.  Here you can see the latter on the left:
Note the larger size and streaking down the flanks of the White-rumped.

When the flock took flight, it was fun trying to sort them out on the go.  Here's a photo showing the two species side-by-side:
The WHITE-RUMPED is the bottom bird; note the white that wraps around the entire rump.  Compare that to the SEMIPALMATEDS above it which show the dark streak through the rump.

Anyway, we eventually headed for more forested regions in the Portland area.  Below is a singing GRAY CATBIRD, a member of the Mimidae family (along with thrashers and mockingbirds):
The sunset capping our first full day of birding was especially nice:
We then headed north and spent some time birding on Mount Desert Island (where Acadia National Park is).  Here's a panorama from the scenic Southwest Harbor area:
Of course, the highlight for many was the boat trip out of Bar Harbor to see seabirds, whales, etc.  The whale-watching company took the boat out to the island of Petit Manan which is part of the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge.  The small island, seen below, has a lighthouse, a small crew of bird researchers, and a whole lot of birds:
The main target here was, of course, the ATLANTIC PUFFIN.  Here's one flying by the boat:
Besides the nesting puffins, there was a selection of ARCTIC TERNS, COMMON TERNS, and RAZORBILLS.  Here's the latter, a chunky black-and-white alcid:
After quite a bit of looking, yes, our trip found whales!  Two HUMPBACK WHALES gave us quite the show.  In fact, it was a known female with her calf (photos can help ID the animal down to the specific individual).  Here's a shot with both in view: note the small dorsal fins:
As was typical for our time along the coast, we saw lots of COMMON EIDERS as well.  Eiders are very hardy, northern sea ducks.  Here's a male in flight with the distinctive black belly:
I'm not sure everyone got on them (meaning... got their binoculars focused on them), but there were some NORTHERN FULMARS out at sea as well.  Here's one in flight:
The fulmar is related to shearwaters and albatrosses in that they have the distinctive tubed nose.  No, you can't really see that from this distance!

We chanced into a couple of NORTHERN GANNETS on the wing during our boat ride as well.  The distinctive black-and-white patterning was evident even from a distance:
We also saw a number of loons winging it as well.  Here's a RED-THROATED LOON with its short legs and small bill:
While we were motoring back into shore, I snapped a picture of the distinctive lighthouse on Egg Rock (originally built more than 130 years ago):
And just before reaching the dock this BLACK GUILLEMOT popped up.  Note the striking black-and-white plumage with bright red legs:
Our tour eventually headed inland to bird different parts of Maine including the more northerly bogs. These northern bogs were really cool too, full of YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHERS, MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, a few skeeters, and some really nice photo opportunities:
Some of these "sprucey" areas hosted boreal specialties like GRAY JAY and BOREAL CHICKADEE.  Here's the latter that we were able to coax into view:
Not widespread but still a target, we tracked down just a few PALM WARBLERS on territory:
The vistas, like this one in Rangeley, albeit cloudy, were still nice:
The more deciduous areas hosted warbs like BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER:
... and BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER:
This PILEATED WOODPECKER was impressive as ever as it flew over.  Sometimes it's easy to forget that we have crow-sized woodpeckers!
Although it's the "Maine" tour, we do actually dip into a different state for a night:  New Hampshire.  The reason is simple; we visit the high slopes of Mount Washington hoping for the uncommon and local BICKNELL'S THRUSH.  Although the weather was very dicy this year (they were reporting snow, sleet, rain, and wind topping 40 mph)... we braved the elements and ventured up one evening after all the other visitors had left.  Although the wind was howling, we found a sheltered spot to give it a try.  Much to our delight, a BICKNELL'S THRUSH zoomed in!  We couldn't believe our luck... what a relief considering the weather!  Our group was all thumbs-up:
However, making things even more goofy... we would end up finding ANOTHER Bicknell's Thrush farther up the mountain.  This time, the bird even came out and foraged low along the shoulder of the road!  Crazy.
Anyway, after the high wore off we realized that by this point the tour was wrapping up.  We found our way back into Maine and thankfully a few of our remaining targets fell into place nicely.  Among others, we snagged WILLOW FLYCATCHER, WILSON'S SNIPE, and this YELLOW-THROATED VIREO:
Although this species breeds in my yard in Missouri... they're fairly local in Maine and so we were happy to add it to the triplist.

After it was all said and done, it was a successful trip with a great bunch of folks.  We nearly reached 180 species for the trip which is nothing to sneeze at!  I'll leave you with a photo of our group, probably a bit sad to be leaving the wonderful birds of Maine:
As always, you can find more info about our tours on the Field Guides website.  As for Maine, it's already on the schedule for 2019!  Click here for more info.

17 June 2017

ANIMALS OF KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

"Animals of Kruger National Park" by Keith Barnes was published in 2016 by Princeton University Press. It's a 176 page paperback that runs $27.95. You can find it online here.
First, you might be asking why on earth I'm reviewing a book that deals with Kruger National Park. Fair question... I've not actually been to Kruger National Park. Ok, ok, I haven't even been to Africa. However, I DO look through a lot of books and so hey, why not? Besides, if/when I make it to South Africa, I want to be prepped and ready to go!

Another reason I wanted to review this book was because of Keith, the author. I had the pleasure of guiding him when he was visiting St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs of Alaska several years ago. Cool guy, nice bloke. And because I assume he's way too busy to be reading book reviews on my blog... I won't be too biased. (OR WILL I???)

Anyway, this book, as the title will probably clue you in to, covers a handpicked selection of animals that visitors might have a chance at seeing if they visit. Of course it doesn't cover ALL the animals that are present in the park, that collection of information would be quite a weighty tome indeed. No, this book is pretty compact and surprisingly slim:

Or maybe it's 500 pages and my hands are MASSIVE?  And no, I wasn't trying to pick its nose with my thumb.

Seriously though, the author does a good job from the get-go; he starts by covering some introduction materials like Contents (duh? I mean, every book has to have one, right?). It's in the table of contents that you see that the animals are categorized later in the book by mammals, reptiles, and then amphibians. Or, if you'd rather, flip to the back cover of the book and find an easy-to-use index:

The book starts out with explanations, usually 1-2 pages each, covering topics such as "The aim of this book" and "How to use this book". Next is the "Glossary of terms" where you can learn that the word "midden" means a pile of crap. The following categories are "Kruger's importance for biodiversity", "The seasons and timing of your visit", "Considerations for your visit", "The habitats", "Characteristic plants", and then a few maps.

Here's one of the maps that attempt to show the differences in habitats:

Seriously though, who can judge 6 different shades of green without direct comparison? While maps are fun to look at, I've always found this type of map key annoying. It might work if you have 4 habitats and 4 drastically different colors but.....

The author continues with intro material such as "How, where and when to watch animals in Kruger National Park" and "The ten best wildlife-watching routes". The latter section is pretty cool as it lists hotspots for particular animals.

Pretty soon we're on to the animals themse... oh, no, not quite... there is a section here with mammal tracks:

Pretty cool to have handy, right? He includes 8 full pages of tracks from everything from elephants to Chacma Baboons to Nyala, Steenbok, and Common Duiker. No, I didn't know what those animals were either.

The first animals covered in the book are the big cats. Here's an example of the first page of an account... this one covering the Cheetah:
So, you can see the common name, scientific name, a section covering size, weight, key ID features, habitat, habits, diet, etc. The rest of the text involved varies from mentions of population size, home ranges, reproduction, and so on. The species account may span 4 pages or so but much of it is photos. Yes, the photos in this book are probably the main thing that'll grab your attention.

For the lion species account, there is a page-filling photo of a male:
While attractive and fun to look at, I sometimes wonder the line between putting in a photo for purpose or to simply show your amazing photos? Anyway, either way, the photos are great.

I'll be honest, I hadn't even heard of a Caracal before but, lo and behold....
Again, you'll see the major topics covered as discussed before. This species was only given one page of coverage.

So now that you're getting the idea of what the book covers, I'll add in just a few more photos I snapped to give a few more examples. Zebra. Who doesn't love the zebra? Here's a side-by-side from that species account:

As before, you'll find some intro information about the species, some text about some additional natural history aspects, and plenty of nice photos.

Before long, you'll move on to the reptile section where you can learn about species like the Mozambique Spitting Cobra:
So overall, did I like the book? Well, I like to break things down first and so will attempt to here....

Pros

*  Slim, not too big, and probably pretty easy to carry in the field.
*  Concise information, especially the consistent stats at the start of each species account.
*  Nice photos.  I find that books heavy on attractive, full-page photos are often meant for beginners and those looking for basic information.


Cons

*  I love complete information and would be in favor of seeing ALL the species present there.  Yes, it would be a bigger book, perhaps MUCH bigger... but then it'd be complete.
*  Although this book was only meant to cover the KNP area, I'd personally like to see the range maps of these species on a broader scale.  For example, I honestly have no idea of the range of Plains Zebra outside of the park.
*  I'd rather see these species nicely illustrated instead of photographed.  After all, being a good illustrator takes lot more skill than being a good photographer (and thus I have more appreciation of illustrators). Sure, there is a time and place for photo guides... but I don't think that's now and here. For me, at least.

In the end, I did enjoy flipping through this book and I have no qualms in suggesting you pick up a copy for your trip to Kruger. If I venture to this part of Africa someday, I'm sure I'll be loaded with books for various birds, mammals, and other wildlife; will this particular book be part of my arsenal? Perhaps. We'll have to wait and see if there might be a more-complete, illustrated option that catches my eye.

Disclaimer:
I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes,  but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

10 June 2017

SPAZ in AZ

Spring in Arizona.  Sounds pretty inviting, right?  And now I can assure you, it's great birding too!  I recently returned from one of our Field Guides tours to southern Arizona led by John Coons.  We enjoyed some unseasonably cool temps as we birded around Tucson, over to the Chiricahuas, westward to the Huachucas, to the remote California Gulch, and then some in the Santa Ritas.  Overall, it was a blast and we ended up seeing more than 200 species of birds!

We started out with some birding straight away... the deserts west of Tucson hosted goodies like this GILDED FLICKER peeking from behind a saguaro:
We had nice look at this RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW as well, a range-restricted species here in the US:
The next day we ventured east through Willcox where, of course, we chose to bird the well-known Willcox pond.  It continued to host a rare-for-Arizona BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER which was a quality addition (although the picture isn't great):
We think it was probably the first time that species had been seen on this tour itinerary.

From there we ventured up into the Chiricahuas, an isolated but impressive mountain range tucked into the southeast corner of the state.  We wasted little time in getting up to a particular spot where, lucky for us, a very rare SLATE-THROATED REDSTART had been hanging out.  It took a little effort but we eventually found the bird singing and calling.  Photos were distant but diagnostic:
We spent several days exploring the many parts of the Chiricahuas including the town of Portal (and the lowlands below it).  One of our first stops was hosting this handsome BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, a common denizen of dry, desert regions:
One of our main targets in the lowlands below Portal was the BENDIRE'S THRASHER, a sometimes tricky thrasher to pin down.  As you can see, pin down we did:
Perhaps one of the most emblematic species of southeastern Arizona, at least for the many birders that visit, is the boldly-colored ELEGANT TROGON.  We tried our luck in the South Fork of Cave Creek and came up big.  What a beaut!
Nearby in Cave Creek, we stumbled onto another very tricky species, the secretive MONTEZUMA QUAIL:
Finding this species can be a nightmare so imagine our excitement when John heard some of these on the rocky slope near the road.  Before too long, we even managed to lay our eyes on them which is no small feat!

Portal gave us another bonus, a pair of THICK-BILLED KINGBIRDS had returned to "downtown" and we got excellent views of both.  You can see the big bill, pale lemon color on the belly, dark facemask, etc:
I'm going to change things up here and focus on owls for a bit.  Although Field Guides does a nightbirds-focused trip in Arizona (see link here), our tour was more of a general birding tour.  HOWEVER, that doesn't mean we skimped on the owls... here's a sampler of what we saw:

1)  GREAT HORNED OWL:
Portal in the Chiricahuas

Whitewater Draw

2)  ELF OWL:
Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas

3)  SPOTTED OWL:
Miller Canyon in the Huachucas

4)  FLAMMULATED OWL:
Cave Creek area in the Chiricahuas

5)  NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL:
Chiricahuas

6)  WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL:
Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas

And yet, I don't think I managed photos of the WESTERN SCREECH-OWL and BURROWING OWL which we also had.  Along with MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL, COMMON POORWILL, and LESSER NIGHTHAWK, it was a great tour for nightbirds!

While we were high in the Chiricahuas, we were surprised to find this female WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER lurking about.  This isn't a common species to find there at this point of the season and we wondered if maybe a pair or two might stick around and breed there this year.  Here's the lady:
If you've seen MEXICAN CHICKADEE in the US, you were probably in the Chiricahuas.  We had several nice looks at this high-elevation speciality:
We were still seeing migrant species as well including hoards of HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHERS, an empid that doesn't breed in the area.  Here's one of them sporting those nice, long wings/primary projection:
I'm not sure if I've ever seen a YELLOW-EYED JUNCO in a photo NOT on pine needles.  This is another range-restricted species that you've probably traveled to Arizona to see:
Always a fan-favorite, the RED-FACED WARBLER is truly a stunning bird.  We were lucky to have one come down to eye-level while we were high in the Chiricahuas:
Another warbler that breeds in the area, but one with yellow instead of red, this GRACE'S WARBLER also appeared a couple of times:
I might insert this photo here... the quintessential view of Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas.  What a beautiful place:
This visit to Arizona was rather unique for me though.  The reason wasn't the birds, really, it was more the temperature:  cold!  That's right... I was in southern Arizona AND it was downright chilly.  Here's a view looking uphill from Miller Canyon.  You can see the snow on the trees and ground:
Here's another view showing my first snowfall in the Huachucas:
No matter, no matter, we needed to bird on... so we did.  We were in the Huachucas now where this PAINTED REDSTART, a type of warbler, showed nicely in Miller Canyon:
We attempted to find one of the TUFTED FLYCATCHERS that had been around but alas, it looked like the cold snap had maybe pushed it to another area.  We still enjoyed the many BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHERS hanging around though.  This is another range-restricted species found mostly in SE Arizona:
In some of the grasslands near Sierra Vista, we searched for (and found!) BOTTERI'S SPARROWS:
Pretty nice of him to perch with a big, fat green plant in the way, huh?  Still, it's a fun species most folks certainly don't get a chance to see often.

We birded at the San Pedro House too and wow, the colors were vibrant; here is a collection of BLUE GROSBEAK, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, HOUSE FINCH, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW, and a LAZULI BUNTING:
A visit to the Huachucas wouldn't be complete without a trip to Mary Jo's feeders in Ash Canyon.  The main target at her wonderful yard was, of course, the LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD.  After all, her feeders are the most reliable for this species in the entire country.  We enjoyed nice looks at a couple of males including this one:
There was another rarity we wanted to try to track down... and it was up in a canyon I hadn't birded before.  Hunter Canyon.  We made the mile hike in and saw some goodies along the way like this BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW that was out in the open and singing:
... but the REAL reason we were hiking in was to try for a rare warbler, one that would be a lifer for most of the folks on tour.  Problem was... we weren't finding it.  We settled in for a bit of a wait before, tada, it started singing!  Before we knew it, we were rushing to find it... and there it was, perched out in the open, the RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLER:
The warbler stayed up just long enough for us all to see it before it dropped back down into the veg.  Whew!

Later yet in the tour, we visited Patagonia Lake State Park which, we were hoping, was hosting a couple of target birds.  It didn't take long for us to discover that our hunches were correct... there was a NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET singing near where we parked:
It may not look like much, but this tyrannulet is a type of flycatcher that is only found in a couple of southern states like Arizona and Texas.  It's named "Northern" because, well, it's found farther north than the Southern one.  Remember, it's all relative.

Just a few steps away, we looked up to find this COMMON BLACK HAWK doing lazy circles above us.  Woah!  This wasn't a species we were expecting to find on tour but we all had great, walk-away looks:
Luck kept on coming; we were in one of the dry washes when we located another rare bird, a BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER:
This is a species I had only seen once or twice before so it was a real treat to see another one.  You can see the long bill and the black cap that extends below the eye.

Our tour included the famous (yet very remote!) California Gulch.  To get there, you must drive your way west through the deserts along terrain like this:
 
Once there, we wandered down into the gulch itself; it's a nice spot with some shade (but not much in the way of water):
Overhead at the gulch, this PURPLE MARTIN was using a nearby saguaro for a nest cavity:
This is kind of interesting too because that subspecies of Purple Martin is only found around saguaros in Arizona (and farther south).

The gulch had a bunch of CANYON WRENS too including this youngster that looked to be getting the hang of things:
The main reason we were in California Gulch though was actually a sparrow.  A sparrow, you say?  Seriously?  Seriously.  There is a rare and range-restricted species called the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW and, for all intents and purposes, it's ONLY found in California Gulch (in the US, at least).  Most people get their lifer there as did I 13 years ago.  Anyway, we were there to find them and, drumroll... they didn't take long to find!
Actually, our views of this species couldn't be beat.  At times, this one was TOO close to focus on:
After we scampered out of the gulch and back to civilization, one of our last birding stops towards the end of the tour was to Montosa Canyon in the Santa Ritas.  We opted for this because we had yet to see a VARIED BUNTING, a species that was just then returning to breed for the summer.  Thankfully, we struck gold and found this dandy:
For good measure, we found another BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER too!  Take a look at the black on the face:
See how the black extends below the eye (or in other words, the eye is completely encircled by the black)?  That alone tells you it's not a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher instead.

However, probably the rarest sighting in Montosa Canyon came from a random roadside.  Imagine our surprise when we spotted this GILA MONSTER crossing the road!
This was so incredibly exciting for me... my lifer Gila Monster.  I know birders that have spent 20 years in Arizona and not found one of these themselves.  Wow!

By this point, the tour was wrapping up.  We had one last birding stop and that was in Madera Canyon where we enjoyed watching the feeders where a myriad of visitors were tanking up.  Species like LAZULI BUNTINGS, LESSER GOLDFINCHES, ACORN WOODPECKERS, and the local hoard of MEXICAN JAYS were all numerous.  But hey, it wasn't too late to snag a new bird for the trip though!  This male CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD came in a few times much to the delight of all of us:
In the end, it was a fantastic trip full of amazing scenery, fun birds, and even an impressive list of herps.  I'll actually be returning to Arizona next month for the Second Spring tour so stay tuned for that report!

Speaking of reports, Field Guides is pretty cool in that it offers summaries of all our tours... publicly!  For example, you can read more about the sightings from this tour here.  Enjoy!