Monday, April 22, 2013

Bahama Mockingbird--No; Todd McGrath--Yes!

Even though I was almost 250 miles north of Bill Baggs SP, and was heading north to attend the Masters golf tournament on Sunday, I decided that trying for the Bahama mockingbird since it had been seen as late as 6:30 PM on Friday made sense. I was not keen on adding 500 extra miles of driving, but it seemed better than chasing a Bahama in the future from my base in North Carolina.  So I climbed out of bed at 5 AM Saturday, put on several CD's and headed back to Miami.

I arrived at Bill Baggs at 8:30, and drove right to the spot where the Bahama had been found and seen easily on Friday.  This was the same location that we had seen a thick-billed vireo on Wednesday. As I drove up I was not surprised to see several birders given that it was Saturday, and the bird had just been found the day before.  I was surprised to find Todd McGrath there since he lives in southern California.  I had gotten to know him when we were on several pelagic trips during my big year in 2010.  He is one of the premier pelagic birders in the country, and always has a very big camera with him.  Saturday was no exception.  He was in Miami on business, and to visit his father, so he had come to Bill Baggs in hopes of photographing the Bahama mockingbird.

From 8:30 to 9:30 the birding group kept walking up and down a 100 foot stretch of roadway, looking intently at the thick foliage where the Bahama had been seen the day before.  At times we heard a quiet call that definitely did not sound like one of the many catbirds in the same area.  We particularly focused on the privet with berries that the bird had been feeding on the day before.  Regular pishing, however, did not bring the calling bird out into the open.

About 9:30 I very briefly saw the head and, and upper back of a mockingbird.  My maybe 5 second look before it disappeared made me think I was looking at a northern mockingbird because of the gray tones I saw.  I have never seen a Bahama mockingbird, and the illustrations I had reviewed seemed to indicate that it would be more more brown in color.  No one else was able to see the bird, and it never reappeared the rest of the morning.

To most of the birders delight, the thick-billed vireo came into view about 10 AM, and proceeded to be very vocal and visible for 15-20 minutes.  As a result, Todd was able to get many good shots of the bird like the one above (click on photo to enlarge).  Todd packed it in about noon.  Soon after dark clouds began to cover the sky with some thunder and lightening in the distance. With rain on the way, I also decided to give it up since I had many miles to drive still if I was going to make it to the Masters the next morning.

After I checked into my motel Saturday night, I went on line to look at photos of Bahama mockingbirds including ones taken of this particular bird.  After looking at them, I saw that in fact some Bahama's are gray in coloration, including the one photographed at Bill Baggs.  Thus it is possible that I did see the Bahama, but not well enough to count it--close but no cigar.  Even without seeing the Bahama, I picked up 4 ABA area life birds, and if the white-cheeked pintail gets accepted, then it will be 5, all of which made for a red letter week!  Short of a phenomenal trip to Alaska, I will probably never again see 4/5 ABA area life birds in a week.  It was great to bird with Dan and Doreene, and we saw just north of 100 species.

I will be heading to southern California on Thursday to bird, and will be on a pelagic trip out of Ventura on Saturday that Todd will be on as well.  Stay tuned!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Western Spindalis and Nanday Parakeet

We were on the road as planned by 5:30 AM to make the 125 mile drive down to Key West from Florida City.  We hit no major slowdowns at that early hour, and arrived at the Key West Botanical Garden on Stock Key right at 8 AM to find out that it did not open until 10 AM--bummer.  We headed into Key West and worked our way out to a beach area where we had several magnificent frigatebirds gliding overhead.  We made a short stop at Goldman's for breakfast--eggs and bagels for Dan and myself, and soup for Doreene.

We were back at the botanical garden at 10 sharp to look for a female western spindalis that has been hanging out there for several weeks.  We were told when we entered where to look for the bird, and proceeded to canvas that part of what is a not very big area.  We found very few birds again.  Later we checked out the small water area where we found black and white, and palm warblers, and both waterthrushes, plus moscovy ducks which are now countable in Florida.

Mid day we met a family of 3 from Oregon who was making their first visit to Florida.  We explained that we were looking for a rare vagrant.  A bit later when we were looking in another area, the wife came running up to us to say she thought her son might have found the bird.  We rushed over to discover that he had found 2 red-eyed vireos but not the spindalis.

About 2 PM we were beginning to wonder if we were going to strike out on the spindalis when another birder and her husband from Rhode Island told us about a sighting of the spindalis late on the day before over by the parking area.  We all went over there to find that a large fig tree had ripening figs on it, plus right next to it was a covered area with chairs.  We settled in hoping that the spindalis would come in to feed.  About 3:30 the young couple from Atlanta who had seen the spindalis on Wednesday came by, and told us more about seeing it.  While with us, they both heard it call.  We looked for it but could not locate it.  They had to leave, and the garden was about to close for the day.  We asked the volunteer who came to move us out about our predicament, and he graciously gave us a few more minutes to look.

Finally, at 4:30 he returned to say he really did need to lock up the gate.  The couple from Rhode Island drove off planning to return at 10 the next morning.  We pulled our car out of the parking area, and got out to listen some more while the gate was being closed.  Doreene heard a chip call, and low and behold, there was the spindalis right by the gate eating a holly berry.  We were able to get some nice looks at it, and I also got a "record" shot just below (click on any photo to enlarge).

We felt incredibly fortunate to have seen the bird at literally the last second since we were not staying in Key West for the night.  We climbed into my car for the long drive back north.  We stopped in Key Largo for a very nice seafood dinner, and then drove on up to Boca Raton to be in position to bird in that area the next morning.  As we were getting out of the car at our motel, Doreene realized that she had left her purse on a chair at the restaurant in Key Largo.  She called and found out they had it.  She would need it to have ID to fly home on Saturday, so we knew we would be driving back to Key Largo in the morning.

We were up early so that we could bird at Wakodahatchee wetlands before making the 100+ mile drive back to Key Largo.  Our last target bird, Nanday parakeet, also called black-hooded parakeet, had been recently reported from the wetlands, so we were hoping to find a few there.  We talked to one of the locals who said there had been a few 2 weeks earlier, but they had left the area.  We still had a nice hour of birding on the boardwalk, and then headed back to get the purse.  We picked it up just before 11 AM, and then drove to Florida City to have lunch at one of my favorite tacquerias, and to get a key lime shake from Robert's fruit stand.

Since we still needed to find Nanday parakeets, we decided after lunch to drive up to the St. Petersburg area where there are large numbers of them.  We were over 100 miles west of Miami when Doreene checked NARBA to find that a Bahama mockingbird, another rare vagrant, had been found that morning at the same spot as the thick-billed vireo we had seen on Wednesday.  It was mid afternoon, and we decided that we needed to keep going to St. Pete to get the parakeet because the traffic would be awful by the time we made it back to Miami.  We also needed to make a short stop in Venice to visit an old friend of Doreene's that was expecting us.

After winding our way thru town, we made it to Walter Fuller Park about 6:30, and were delighted to find a few Nanday parakeets flying about, and eating in the grass.  Dan got a very nice shot of one.  Since Dan and Doreene were flying out of Orlando the next morning, we made the 2 hour drive on up to the airport area to spend the night.  Before going to bed, I needed to decide whether I would get up very early and drive back to Miami to try for the Bahama mockingbird.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thick-billed Vireo

We were up early on Wednesday morning to make the drive from Coral Gables to Key Biscayne.  Even though we started on Old Cutler Rd. to try to avoid the rush hour traffic on Route #1, we still found the going very slow because of all the schools along the road.  Once we were back on Route #1 it was even worse.  We had left our motel at 7:15 thinking we could make it to Bill Baggs by 8 AM.  We finally arrived there about 8:30.  We went straight to where a thick-billed vireo has been seen regularly for over a month. 

There were very few birds about except for the occasional cardinal or catbird.  We kept listening for its call, and then Doreene thought she picked it up.  We kept listening and soon the vireo appeared about 40 feet away from us in a bushy plant.  We watched it for about 5 minutes before it moved out of sight.  We continued to hear it calling off and on for the next 15-20 minutes, but it never came out in the open again.  I could not get any photos, but I have added the photo above taken by Todd McGrath, a birder I know (click on any photo to enlarge).  I will explain in a following post how I knew that Todd had a photo of this bird.  We also enjoyed finding one of the many types of iguanas found in Florida.

About 10 AM we decided to leave Bill Baggs and made our way down to Florida City which is near Everglades NP.  We stopped enroute to try out the Pollo Tropical chicken which proved to be very tasty.  This is one of the chains you can find now in southern California, southern Texas and southern Florida that specializes in marinating chicken with a fruit juice based marinade, and then grilling it.  I am assuming that this concept comes out of Mexico and has taken hold in these areas.

We checked into our motel and took a short break before driving to Everglades NP.  We visited the Anhinga Trail first and were surprised at how few birds we found.  Those that were still in the area were very cooperative.

There was no shortage of alligators.

We next stopped at Mahogany Hammock to stroll the boardwalk.  It also was mostly birdless other than 3 migrant warblers (black-throated green, black and white, and parula), 2 great-crested flycatchers, and a lovely breeding plumage red-bellied woodpecker.

We headed on down to Flamingo to see what might be around.  At Eco Pond we found several painted buntings, 2 orchard orioles and lots of catbirds.  The tide was high, so no chance for shorebirds.  We drove back to Florida City to eat dinner and get to bed early to be ready to start out the next morning at 5:30 to make the drive to Key West to look for a western spindalis.  Stay tuned!

Monday, April 15, 2013

White-cheeked Pintail and Purple Swamphen

I was on the road at 6 AM sharp on Monday 4/8.  I had to drive 650 miles to Orlando, FL to pick up my birding friends, Dan and Doreene, who were flying there from Columbus, OH.  The week before a spotted redshank was found in Indiana.  They were able to get over to see it, but it left before I could make the drive to try to find it.  Since I missed it, I had called Dan and Doreene to see if they had any interest in birding in Florida to try to pick up 3 rare vagrants there as well as 2 exotics--Nanday parakeet and purple swamphen--that recently have been added to the ABA bird list.  They said yes, thus my meeting them in Orlando.

I arrived at 3:30 PM and we immediately drove another 100 miles to Pelican Island NWR which was established in 1903 as the very first national wildlife refuge.  We visited it because for several weeks a white-cheeked pintail had been feeding in the Centennial Trail pond.  I had seen a white-cheeked pintail in North Carolina during my big year in October of 2010, but the NC bird review committee had not accepted it as being a wild bird.  This one in Florida was my next chance to add it to my ABA life list. 

We arrived about 5:30 to find David Crockett, a birder from Estes Park, CO who also lives in Florida in the winter, patiently waiting to see the pintail.  He had been there all day, but the duck had not made an appearance.  Without success, we all stuck it out until dusk when the refuge was closing.

The next morning we all returned after spending the night in Vero Beach.  Dan, Doreene and I some how survived without any after affects a very bad chinese buffet meal the night before.  It was a fine sunny morning with some clouds to keep us cool.  The local volunteer crew of seniors was working on the butterfly garden while we kept scanning the pond.  About 10 AM I noticed a group of blue-winged teal had appeared near a small island.  I mentioned it, and immediately Dan found the pintail feeding in with them.  We all got to watch it for at most 10 minutes before it disappeared behind the island.  It was too far out for my camera, but my friend Bob Wallace was able to send me a shot of it he took earlier this year (click on photo to enlarge).

Since the pintail was out of sight, and we had spent a total of almost 5 hours over 2 days waiting for it to appear, we decided it was time to seek out another one of the 5 target birds we hoped to find while in Florida.  We headed south towards Lake Okeechobee to search for purple swamphens.  This was another bird that I saw in March of 2010, and now that it had been added to the ABA list, we all needed to see it again.

We tried a couple of spots based on e bird reports--the electronic system used by many birders to provide sightings that can be accessed by other birders.  We were unsuccessful, so we drove another hour to STA 5 which stands for storm water treatment area #5.  I had seen the swamphen here in 2010.  There were lots of common moorhens, and 1 purple gallinule, but no swamphens.  We also did not find any snail kites which I also had seen there during my big year.  In general it seemed that bird numbers were down from my visit to STA 5 in 2010.

We climbed back into my car about 5:30, and had just enough time to drive to the Pembroke Pines area where the purple swamphen first was introduced in Florida.  We visited the Chapel Trail Nature Preserve.  As we entered we found 2 other birders leaving who said a swamphen was right by the boardwalk.  We rushed out to find that a pair was close by (photo above taken by Dan Sanders).  We found a 2nd pair as well.

With dusk upon us, we decided to make the drive down to Miami to spend the night to be in position to visit Bill Baggs SP early on Wednesday morning.  Our target bird was the thick-billed vireo.  Stay tuned!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Hooded Crane Update

One of the biggest birding stories that began back in late 2011 was the discovery of a hooded crane at Hiwassee wildlife refuge located northwest of Chattanooga, TN.  The bird stayed several weeks at Hiwassee with the 1000's of sandhill cranes that come there every winter.  When the sandhill cranes began migrating back north in 2012, the hooded crane left with them, and was recorded at one more place in Indiana.

Birders from all over the U.S. came to Hiwassee to see this beautiful bird in hopes that it would eventually be accepted as a wild bird, and thus a first North American record for the species. I first wrote about the hooded crane on 12/18/11 in this blog when I had just returned from seeing it.  Both photos were taken by Doug Koch (click on any photo to enlarge).  I believe it is obvious which bird is the hooded crane.

The debate began almost immediately within the birding community about the crane's provenance.  Given that its normal breeding territory is in Siberia, and most of the 10,000 hooded crane population winters in Japan, there was great skepticism about it being a wild bird.  As a result, the bird review committees in both Indiana and Tennessee spent a year researching whether it could have been a wild bird rather than an escapee.

There are almost no hooded cranes in captivity in the U.S.  After finding that all known captive hooded cranes were accounted for, and studying the possibility that this hooded crane had migrated in the fall of 2011 from Siberia to the U.S. with the sandhill cranes, both the Indiana (6-1 vote) and the Tennessee (5-1 vote) state bird review committees have now accepted the hooded crane as being wild.  The next step is for the ABA to review the "evidence", and make a decision about whether to add the hooded crane to the ABA bird list.

I am going to be birding in Florida next week, and will be reporting about my time there.  Stay tuned!