Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Magee Marsh and Environs, and West Virginia

It seemed like Monday morning came all too quickly because I went to sleep at midnight having had a most enjoyable visit with Greg Miller, and Neil and Gerri after Neil's big year talk.  I first met Greg on a pelagic trip out of Hatteras back in 2002.  He is one of the 14 people who have seen over 700 bird species in the ABA area in a calendar year.  He is somewhat famous because he, Al Levantin and Sandy Komito all saw more than 700 species in 1998 which led to Mark Obmascik writing the book, The Big Year, that was made into a movie of the same name.  Partly as a result, Greg is often a featured participant at many bird festivals around the country.

I had breakfast as usual at 6 AM with Dan and Doreene, and Bert and Mike.  We went our separate ways to bird.  The winds were still favorable, so Dan, Doreene and I spent the day again birding Magee and Metzger marshes, and Ottawa NWR.  Doreene noticed a new vanity plate which she coveted since the great gray owl is her favorite bird (my photo).

The warbler show continued being the main theme on the boardwalk with many black-throated blues and black-throated greens putting smiles on birders faces (all photos in today's post are Laura's unless indicated otherwise. Click on any photo to enlarge).

A new bird for the trip was a yellow-billed cuckoo that typically kept itself well hidden thus making it very difficult to obtain good photos.  A distant olive-sided flycatcher kept the crowd busy for awhile in order to make a solid ID.  I also saw my first blue-headed vireo and cedar waxwing of the trip.  Overall the volume of birds was down a bit compared to the previous 4 days, but there was still good variety.  By the end of the day my warbler species count was at 24, and I saw my first orange-crowned warbler of the trip.

One of the special opportunities provided only during the biggest week in birding is taking a bus ride into Cedar Point wildlife area which sits to the west of Ottawa NWR.  Doreene had gotten reservations for the Tuesday morning tour that left at 7 AM.  We had done this tour a couple of years ago, and wanted to try it again.  As we were driving up to the entrance all 15 of us cheered the male turkeys competing with each other (my photo).

Once we were on the 1-way road that takes 3-4 hours to traverse with stops, we immediately began to see and hear birds. There were plenty of warblers but also birds not seen normally at Magee like tufted titmouse.  We heard another least bittern calling in the reeds next to the road.

At our third stop along the way, I walked a bit ahead of the group which meant I missed seeing some white pelicans fly over because I did not hear anyone point them out.  That was okay because as I was carefully scanning the bushes along the road I discovered a Kirtland's warbler--the rarest warbler in the ABA area.  I quickly got Dan, Doreene and their friend Jeff to join me since they were closer than the rest of the group.  We all quickly checked for the key field marks--overall large size, long tail that was flicked regularly while eating, broken eye-ring, large bill size, no yellow in the rump, gray back with some streaking, yellow throat and breast with some streaking, etc.--and concluded it was a female Kirtland's.  And then the bird disappeared (photo above added on 5/22; taken by Keith Lott the next day on the bus tour).

We signaled the rest of the group to join us, and as they arrived, fortunately the Kirtland's popped up again.  We were able to spend at least 10 minutes studying it as it fed which also meant lots of photos were obtained (photos above and below were taken by Jim Long). We were all pretty excited since the only other Kirtland's warbler seen so far in the area was yesterday at Kelly's Island on another bus tour. There were only about 400 Kirtland's left 40 years ago because of loss of habitat, and cowbird predation on the breeding grounds.  Through the trapping of the cowbirds, and the expansion of the jack pine habitat in Michigan necessary for them to breed, today there are estimated to be 4000.  As a result, since 2010 at least one Kirtland's has been found at or near Magee Marsh each year.

We finished our tour about 11:30, and headed back over to Magee in hopes of seeing a Henslow's sparrow that had been found earlier in the day.  unlike the Kirtkand's warbler, Henslow's sparrows are not uncommon, but finding one on the boardwalk is totally surprising.  It had been seen only briefly before it flew off, but by mid afternoon it was relocated feeding very close to the boardwalk.  I have seen this species many times, but never at such a close range.  It is one of our prettier sparrows.

As if a Henslow's and a Kirtland's was not enough, we finished our day at Pearson Park watching a full plumage female red-necked phalarope.  Dan and Doreene said they thought this was only the 2nd red-necked phalarope that they had seen in the spring in over 20 years of birding in Ohio. My warbler count for the day was only 21 species, but the Kirtland's raised my warbler trip total to 31 in 6 days of birding which tied my personal best from last year.  The day proved to be probably the best of the trip and a total of 99 bird species for the day, but the winds were beginning to shift to the north which was not a good sign.

Because the weather was not supposed to be so good on Wednesday, we got a bit later start than normal.  We had not yet been over to Oak Openings, which is on the west side of Toledo.  Dan, Doreene, their friend Bill, and I decided to spend the morning birding there.  As we drove up we ran into a small group being led by Greg Miller.  We immediately found grasshopper sparrow, and with a bit of work, blue-winged warbler which meant a new personal record for me of 32 for the trip.  An hour later I was able to push the record up to 33 when we found a pair of pine warblers.  About 11:30 the rain began to fall, so we drove back to have lunch in Oregon--a suburb of Toledo where we were staying.  

With the rain subsiding, we headed back to Magee, stopping on the way to look at a large group of ruddy turnstones and black-bellied plovers most of which were in breeding plumage.  Back at the boardwalk in only an hour's time we found lots of warblers including blackburnian and magnolia.

Next up was another run through Ottawa NWR on the auto tour.  We were still looking for yellow-headed blackbirds, and black terns plus a reported king rail.  We found none of them, but there was a pretty close pair of trumpeter swans (my photo), and a group of short-billed dowitchers in full breeding colors. We decided to head in for the day since the weather continued to be crummy. With the winds predicted to be coming out of the north for the next several days, I decided to start back home on tomorrow instead of staying until Sunday as I had planned. 

I awoke to light rain that turned into heavier rain fairly quickly.  Dan and Doreene decided to drive about 90 miles south to try to see a Wilson's phalarope as part of their 20th consecutive big year in Ohio.

I drove over to the boardwalk in hopes that the rain would let up, and maybe the bird I still most wanted to see--Connecticut warbler--would stop flying north because of the weather.  I read for a bit until the rain stopped.  I put on my rain gear and began to cruise the boardwalk.  It was chilly, windy and there were almost no birders, but there were still birds to be seen including American redstarts and Tennessee warblers.  Alas, no Connecticut warbler showed up.

I did see a Philadephia vireo, a few eastern wood pewees, and a young rose-breasted grosbeak (my photo).  Dan and Doreene got back in time from their successful chase of the Wilson's phalarope for me to say good-bye to them as well as Jay, and to say hello to their friend Joe.  I then made the 6 hour drive back to Beckley, W. VA. to be in position to bird some there on Friday.

I was on the road by 6 AM to make the short drive to Twin Falls SP--a place that I had read about, but never birded.  It was cool and partly cloudy.  I found a few birds--blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, white-breasted nuthatch, red-shouldered hawk, black-throated green warbler, and an ovenbird (my photo), but not my target bird--cerulean warbler.  One had been reported when I was at Magee, but I heard about it too late to see it.

I decided to try another spot called Crump Bottoms that also was supposed to be good for ceruleans.  It took me about 90 minutes to drive there.  I arrived by 11 AM which gave me hope that the birds would still be singing.  I made it down the somewhat rough gravel road including a stream crossing before finally reaching the bottom.  I almost immediately heard a cerulean calling.  With some patience and perseverance I finally saw it singing in a nearby tree.  This is one of my favorite warblers and was a perfect last bird for the trip.  It was the 34th warbler species of the trip, and having seen prairie and Swainson's warblers, and Louisiana waterthrush earlier this spring, it meant the only eastern warbler that I missed for the year was Connecticut which I consider the hardest warbler to find.

I needed to get on the road again in order to arrive in time to make dinner for my wife, so about 12:30 I began the 4 hour drive home.  In reviewing my trip list, I ended up with 176 bird species seen over 8 full days of birding, and there were another 14 reported that I missed seeing.  So I ended my now annual Magee Marsh trip with new personal bests for warbler species seen, and also total bird species seen.  I would say that while no day at Magee this year was a "10" birdwise, it was the most consecutive days of high quality birding that I have experienced in my visits there.  Also, as always I want to thank those birders who have shared their photos with me, especially Laura, so that this blog can be more colorful and entertaining.  I will be heading out to Hatteras, NC next week to do a couple of pelagic trips with Brian Patteson.  Stay tuned!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Magee Marsh and Environs

I had planned to leave on Friday morning the 9th very early to make the 10 hour drive from Chapel Hill to Magee Marsh which is about 20 miles east of Toledo on Lake Erie.  I had been checking Kenn Kaufman's Crane Creek Birding blog site to see what the migration predictions were looking like.  No surprise, when the winds are out of the south the birds tend to move north.  When they come out of the north they stay where they are waiting for better migration conditions.  Kenn was predicting on Tuesday that the winds were going to be favorable beginning on Wednesday and continuing into the weekend for a good flow of migrants.  As a result, I decided to leave Wed. afternoon to drive to Beckley, W.VA. which would put me in position to reach Magee by mid day on Thursday.

I was on the road by 6 AM Thursday to drive the 400 miles to reach Magee Marsh. I was getting emails from my friends Laura and Doreene that the boardwalk was hopping with new arrivals--birds and humans.  As I was getting close to the turn into Magee Marsh, I found about 100 American golden plovers feeding in a field.  I called Dan and Doreene who were over at Pipe Creek natural area to let them know to look for them on their way to Magee.

When I drove up I also found that the boardwalk had received new signs on both the east and west ends (my photo).  Much more colorful than the old ones, but somehow they failed to say on the new signs that one was at the west end and the other at the east end.  I guess they are part of the buffing up of Magee that has resulted from promoting the biggest week in birding over the past few years. There is also a campaign to raise $300,000 to rebuild the boardwalk which is beginning to show a lot of wear and tear.

I immediately heard that there was a very cooperative mourning warbler being seen at number 16 on the boardwalk.  I went straight out there, and found Laura Keene and Larry Peavler were both there photographing the very hungry bird (all photos in today's post were taken by Laura unless otherwise indicated.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

I spent the afternoon seeing what the boardwalk had to offer and found several warbler species including blackpoll (above) and chestnut-sided. 

When Dan and Doreene arrived I went out to the parking lot to meet them, and saw where a woodcock nest had been taped off to protect the bird (my photo).

By the end of the day I had seen 24 species of warbler, and there were 4 other warbler species reported that I missed.  My decision to arrive a day early had been rewarded.   I had also seen some of the other migration week regulars like Bert and Mike from the Philly area.

On Friday, we spent most of the day on the boardwalk.  There were more thrushes arriving including gray-cheeked.  We also saw wood and Swainson's thrushes, and veeries, but missed hermit which often has already passed through the area by now.  We also spent some time at nearby Metzger Marsh to see if we could locate the white-faced ibises that had been reported, but came away empty handed.  By the end of the day I had seen 23 warbler species including a rare for the boardwalk yellow-throated warbler.  5 other warblers species were reported that I missed.

Friday evening a group of us went into Toledo to Rockwell's Steakhouse to celebrate Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman's big years that they had just competed in 2013.  Dan and Doreene, Laura and her friend Cathy, Neil and his girlfriend Gerri, Jay, and I all thoroughly enjoyed the fine food.

Saturday morning began at Metzger Marsh where we had some luck finding warblers in the small stand of trees that sits between the marsh and Lake Erie.  We then headed over to Magee where I was able to see a worm-eating warbler which was new for the trip.  Black and whites seemed to be everywhere.  We also got pretty good looks at a black-billed cuckoo. With so many birders and photographers on the boardwalk, we opted for the auto tour at Ottawa NWR which produced a few shore birds like dunlin, and greater and lesser yellow-legs.  We saw a bird hiding in the grass which turned out to be a snipe that we hoped at first would be a king rail which had been reported. We headed back to the boardwalk, and stopped at the Sportsmen's center on the way into Magee and found barn swallows nesting at the entrance to the building (my photo).

When we arrived at the boardwalk, I heard about a female golden-winged being seen in the same area out by the beach where the worm-eating had been feeding, so I went over and joined the crowd which was enjoying seeing this fairly rare warbler at Magee.

A Kentucky warbler had been seen briefly in the morning on the boardwalk, but then disappeared for a few hours.  It was relocated about 100 yards from where it was first seen around mid afternoon.  This time it was pretty cooperative for the photographers.  About an hour later it had returned to the spot where it was first seen.

Then we heard that 3 white-faced ibis had flown into Metzger Marsh, so we went to see these lovely birds which had great light from the sun setting on them.  Because I saw and/or heard every warbler reported at Magee Marsh, my warbler species count for the day was 28--a new single day personal record for me at Magee.  And my warbler total for the first 3 days was up to 29. 

With no reports of anything rare in the area on Sunday morning, we returned to Magee.  The south winds had continued, so the number and variety of species continued to be good.  There were a few Canada warblers that had come in.

There were also a few Wilson's warblers around.

While eating lunch we got a report of 10 black-bellied whistling ducks that had been found near Pipe Creek, a natural area in Sandusky which is about 45 minutes to the east.  This was only the second time this species had been found in Ohio, so we jumped into our cars, and headed over to check them out.  When we arrived they were still resting near a MacDonald's from the long flight from maybe Texas.  We also checked to see if the first ever recorded neotropic cormorant was roosting nearby, but it was not.

After long looks, we walked into Pipe Creek to see what was around.  We heard a least bittern calling, and tried to get it to show itself.  It kept "talking" to us, but after 15 minutes we gave up trying to coax it out into the open.  We saw some gulls and terns, and may have seen the neotropic cormorant fly by with 2 double-cresteds.

We started back towards Toledo to have an early dinner in order to be at Neil Hayward's accidental big year talk that he was giving at 7 PM.  Neil did an outstanding job, and covered the topic in less than 90 minutes.  After the talk was over, Gabriel Mapel, who I met at Magee when he did a junior big year in 2011, came up to me to introduce his mother.  This was a nice ending to the first 4 days of my trip, and there were still several days of birding left, and the winds were still helping.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Morocco--Final Day of Birding: Massa and Massa Estuary

Since it was our last day of birding, we were on the road at 6:30 AM to make the hour drive to Massa where we hoped to pick up brown throated martin, which is similar visually to our northern rough-winged swallow.  When we arrived at the key spot we found some construction work underway, but we were able to walk down the river bed.  Very soon after we reached a promising bank that had a few nest holes in it we saw 3 martins flying up river towards us.  Unfortunately, while we got a pretty good view of them, they quickly flew right on by us.  We waited a bit in hopes that they would return, but they did not so we ended up with no photos.

With the brown throated martin now on our trip list, we still had 1 bird that had eluded us--black-bellied sandgrouse .  We drove a short distance to a site that had been good for them in the past.  As we approached Mustafa saw 2 flying not too far off.  We got out to begin working towards where we had seen them land.  In our desire to not miss them, we did not stop to all look at a tawny pipit that Martin found just as we got out of the van.  It ended up being on our trip list but seen by almost none of us.

We kept moving slowly towards where we had last seen the 2 sandgrouse, and happily many more began to arrive.  Once we got close enough to the spot we understood the attraction--there was a small seep and they were coming in to drink.  It is amazing how this fairly large bird blends in so well with the ground around it (all photos in today's post were taken by Laura except for 1.  Click on any photo to enlarge).  We were able to spend a good period of time watching the flock of black-bellied sandgrouse before they had drunk enough and took off.

It began to rain as we got back into the van to move onto a new area further down the river.  Unfortunately, the rain which was really the first we had experienced during the trip, kept up enough to make birding somewhat difficult.  We found a zitting cisticola, and did turn up a few warblers at one spot including Cetti's, western olivaceous, Orphean and Sardinian (just below).

There were women bringing back some plant they had harvested before the rain began (my photo).

We proceeded a bit further along to some fields where we heard a black-crowned tchagra calling.  We got out to try to track it down.  It kept moving away from us, but we did find a few other birds that were a bit rain soaked.

First up was a stonechat, and then a cirl bunting.

 Next we found a damp European goldfinch.


A common sandpiper popped up on a small mound.  In the river we had good looks at a Moroccan cormorant.

It was getting to be lunch time, so we went to a new spot to eat.  The rain stopped, and the sun even came out which let us bird while lunch was being fixed.  The first bird seen was a black crowned tchagra which made up for the one we missed earlier in the day.  We all finally got good looks at it which we had not been able to do several days previously when we had a fly by glimpse of one. While enjoying the tchagra, we also got a very distant view of a wryneck--also a bird that some had missed earlier in our trip.

The sun did not stay out, so after we gladly said goodbye to the last lunch of the tour, we decided to drive around to the beach where the Massa river estuary was located.  Along the way we spotted our 7th little owl of the trip,

By the time we reached the beach the sun was fully out again.  We immediately saw a few sanderlings feeding along the beach wave line. We walked down to the estuary, seeing a few more birds as we went including a crested lark.  At the estuary we were intercepted by a "ranger" for the preserve who told us we could not walk any further out towards the water.  As a result, we walked out to the edge of the beach where we found some birds roosting including 15 red knots.

Laura had not initially come out with us, but she followed a bit later, and got a record shot of us walking back.  A peregrine falcon came up the beach with us.

Even though the rain had hindered our birding for a bit, the day ended on a high note as we walked back to the van enjoying the bright sun.  We returned to La Pergola in time to freshen up before gathering for our last dinner.  Marty, Bill and I cracked open a bottle of Glenfiddich scotch to celebrate the success of our trip before going to eat.  The salad trolley kicked things off again followed by lamb brochettes with frites and other cooked vegies.  Chocolate cake topped off the meal.

We did our last bird list review which included some photos Martin had put on his computer.  It made for a very nice wrap up.  The final count for the trip was 226 species or sub-species which might have been a new trip record, but Adrian did not know for sure.  More importantly, we saw all the key endemic species, and only missed 2 birds that normally are found--lanner falcon which we might actually have seen one morning near Boumalne, but the bird flew off too quickly to identify it; and lesser short-toed lark.  My personal list was 222 birds seen and/or heard of which 124 were life birds for me.  Martin joined me and Marty for a nightcap which finished off the scotch.

The next morning we said our farewells to Mustafa, and boarded our plane to Casablanca where we all caught our Royal Air Maroc flight back to New York City.  Everyone seemed to have had a great trip, and I was very happy to have been able to visit Morocco one more time.  The birding had been excellent; the country and culture most interesting and enjoyable; and Adrian, Martin and Mustafa had been fine leaders.  I would highly recommend this trip to any birder.

I am off later today to Ohio where I will see Laura, Dan and Doreene again as we take in the spring migration at Magee Marsh and surrounding hotspots.  Stay tuned!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Morocco--Day 16: Arghoud Beach, Cape Rhir, Tamri and the Souss Estuary

After another fine breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Latifa and her husband Said, and to the English woman, who was spending a week in the area, that we got to know a bit while having dinner and breakfast at La Maison Anglais.  We had some driving to reach the other side of Agadir which has become the sardine fishing capital of the world.  Once we reached the Atlantic coast, we stopped at Arghoud beach to see what was about.   

There was a group of mostly lesser black-backed gulls loitering with the occasional yellow-legged gull mixed in.  We also found some lovely Audouin's gulls with their red and black beaks (all photos in today's post were taken by Laura.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

While scanning the water we found a few gannets feeding very far out, but the surprise was a raft of balearic shearwaters which number only about 2000 pairs in the world.  This was a great pick up for our trip, and a life bird for all of us.

We continued up the coast to reach the breeding area for the northern bald ibis of which there are now only about 500 still in the wild.  Their habitat has been greatly reduced to where they live in a very small area along the Atlantic coast near Agadir.  Whereas in the U.S. we would expect to find an ibis feeding in a wetland or wet fields, the northern bald ibis prefers sandy semi-arid land that also may have some grazing and small agricultural plots mixed in.

We stopped at Tamri to scan the estuary, but found no ibis present.  We drove another 15 minutes up the road to reach an area near the breeding cliffs.  As soon as we came upon the right habitat we began to see ibis.  We got out of the van, and spent the next 15 minutes watching as many as 20 of the birds feed, and move at times to a new spot to eat.  Their feathers were most beautiful, but the bald head was not so great.

We turned around to work our way back to Agadir and our lodging.  First though we found a nice quiet beach to have some lunch, and to scan the water.

On our way into town we spotted a couple of purple herons taking in the warm sun.

About 2 PM we checked into our French owned hotel, La Pergola, located on the edge of Agadir, and then headed over to the Souss Estuary.   We were blessed with continuing sunny weather and many birds.  The greater flamingos were a big hit.

The pied avocets were also a crowd pleaser.

As we worked our way down the estuary we kept finding new birds including a common redshank.  We also found Eurasian curlews, black-tailed godwits, dunlins and curlew sandpipers, a Moroccan white breasted cormorant and a common shelduck.

The next really good trip bird was a collared pratincole that initially we saw sitting on the mud.  It took off and seemed to be heading away.  We kept watching as it got more and more distant, and figured it was going to just keep on going when it reversed direction and came back near us very quickly.  It settled on the mud again where it stayed for a bit until it was harassed by a lesser black-backed gull.  This time when it took off it did not return, but we did end up finding 7 different species of gulls in the same area including a surprise greater black-backed gull mixed in with the lesser, slender billed, black-headed, yellow-legged, Audouin's and mediterranean gulls.  We also saw sandwich, gull-billed and whiskered terns in the bunch.

As we were heading out we flushed a stone curlew, but the last great get for the day was barbary partridge.  We were thinking that we were going to miss this Mahgreb endemic since we were down to just one more day of birding, so you can imagine our elation when Mustafa pointed 1 out just to the left side of the van.  It of course immediately disappeared.  After 5 minutes many in the group still had not gotten good looks at it.  Martin said he thought it would work its was up the ridge if we played a tape of its call.  We just needed to be patient.  Sure enough after a few more minutes we were able to see as many as 4 birds.  The barbary partridge reminded us of a chukar.

We got back to our hotel about 6 which gave us time to freshen up before dinner.  The first course was either soup, or a salad concocted from several choices on the trolley.  Adrian had been raving about this salad course, and we were not disappointed.  The rest of the meal was another round of the famous lemon chicken tagine followed by creme caramel.

We did our bird list review and added another 11 new trip birds.  Martin also had his computer, and showed the group a photo of the mystery warbler from 2 days before.  Using an application on his computer, he walked us thru the key details of the bird based on a book he had that specialized in distinguishing field marks.  This book has no bird photos, just lists of these defining field marks.  The analysis showed that we had found a marsh warbler which is quite rare in Morocco.  With just 1 full day of birding to go before we would be heading home, we still had some more hoped for birds on our list to look for on our final day.  Stay tuned!