Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mountain Birding in Colorado

This week in Big Year Histrory:

It was this week in 2012 that I had made my first trip to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas where I passed 400 species for they year.  A modest 300 as a beginning birder had been my original goal.  I left Texas with 438 species and set my sights on 500 on my way to 596 ABA species

This year, my MLB Big Year has a goal of 500 species, as I travel all around North America with the Blue Jays.  I've passed 300 and hoped to add more in Colorado.  On the way to birding in the Denver  area I spent a couple of days looking for a Henslow's Sparrow in the outskirts of Chicago. They were, very likely, almost all gone. I think I was a couple of weeks late for seeing plenty of them, but just on time to see dozens of Bobolinks, and plenty of Dickcissels.  There are two nice spots to go birding in the Chicago area.  Close to downtown is the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, which is about a 15 minute drive from the Magnificent Mile, and Paul Douglas Forest Preserve.  The most recent sightings of Henslow's Sparrows had come from those two locations.

But that was just a prelude to my trip to Denver and my search for a Lifer, the Clark's Nutcracker.  Back in 2012 I didn't really have a chance at one as I was not able to travel to Colorado.  There had been reports of one in Nevada when I was there in July, but that didn't go anywhere.  So, with limited time to bird I decided on Echo Lake Park which is a stop along the way to Mount Evans, North America's Hightest Auto Road.  More on that later.

Echo Lake is about an hour outside of downtown Denver and high enough in the mountains that I had temporarily lost my hearing.  My first morning up there, felt like it was going to be a bust.  I knew there was a Barrow's Goldeneye in the lake and that Nutcrackers had been reported on e-Bird, but the first birds I saw were Robins, Mallards, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a female Red-breasted Nutchatch.  However, over the 3 hours I had up there I did add 3 new year birds.  I found my first Townsend's Solitaire outside Ontario, in the habitat they actually belong in, a Broad-tailed Hummingbird and around the other side of the lake, a female Barrow's Goldeneye.

I had planned on a different location the next day, but decided I would have a better chance at the Nutcrackers if I went back up the mountain and drove just a little higher.  I left a little earlier on Tuesday morning and at the base of the mountain, ran into a small flock of Black-billed Magpies.  A little further up the road, on a wire was a Violet-green Swallow.  Up at Echo Lake I retraced my steps from the previous day and found in quick succession 2 Gray Jays and a Cordilleran Flycatcher.  Further into the woods I heard and then found me a Mountain Chickadee.  What a difference a day makes.  

At that point I decided to head further up the mountain to see if I could find the illusive Clark's Nutcracker.  As it turned out, I didn't have to go far, as adjacent to the restaurant just past the lake, is a campground, and as I was driving by heading to the road leading to Mount Evans, I heard the Nutcracker calling.  I stopped the car, almost backed into the car behind me and quickly parked the car.  I had to follow the calls into someone's occupied camp sight, but there on the ground, was a pair of Clark's Nutcrackers and ABA Lifer 647.  It was my 8th new species of the year here in Colorado and number 323 for the year.

So, after scoring the Nutcracker, I had ideas of heading further up the mountain to find Brown-capped Rosy Finches.  But as I begin the climb I noticed that the winding road coming down the mountain is a very steep drop off into oblivion.  I've driven roads like that before but I'd have had to drive so slowly back down the mountain I'd have not been back in Denver on time to drop by car off at 11:30 and get to work on time.  So, I nervously turned around and slowly skirted the edge of oblivion and made my way back down to the campgrounds, where I was treated to dozens of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds flitting around the bushes and feeders at the lodge.  

As I made my way back down the mountain I stopped a couple of times by flowing rivers looking for American Dippers, but without success. Not much time to bird in the morning tomorrow, before heading back to Toronto for the next two weeks.

Female Barrow's Goldeneye

Echo Lake:

Townsend's Solitaire:

Black-billed Magpie:

Cordilleran Flycatcher:

Steller's Jay:

Gray Jay:

Mountain Chickadee:

Clark's Nutcracker:

Broad-tailed Hummingbird:

Yellow-rumped Warbler:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Birding Carden Alvar Plains in Ontario

If you have a day in May or June and are visiting Toronto, one of the best places a birder can go is the Carden Alvar, about 1.5 hours northeast of the city.  It is a designated important Bird Area and is one of the last few places in Canada to see the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike.  It is also home to breeding populations of Upland Sandpipers, Eastern Bluebirds, Golden-winged Warblers, Sedge Wrens and Bobolinks, to name just a few.  

Monday was my first day off in Toronto since early May and the target birds of the Carden Alvar were high on my Big Year List.  I had yet to see Bobolinks or Eastern Meadowlarks, two bird species I've usually seen in April or May.  Of course, the Alvar is famous for its breeding Upland Sandpipers and we were eager to see those and Sedge Wrens as well.  

Your main focus of the trip will be Wylie Road.  When you arrive you are greeted by the large information board and usually an Eastern Bluebird.  

Don't be fooled by the plastic owl in the nearby farmer's field.  The road is bumpy and could use a good grading but speed is not necessary here.  Drive slow, stop often and listen for Golden-winged Warblers.  We did not hear any this day, but early on we did hear peeping of and had a rare daytime sighting of a Wilson's Snipe sitting on pretty much the same pole we saw one on late in the evening two years earlier.

Further down the road we heard Eastern Meadowlarks calling and soon after discovered not one, but two Upland Sandpipers very close to the road.

Eventually you make your way up to what looks like a shack but is both a bird blind and "visitors Centre."  It's often home to nesting Barn Swallows, and this year to an Eastern Pheobe nest, complete with 4 fresh eggs.

Across the road there was a hungry family of baby Bluebirds being fed by one parent, white the other was close by watching

Just down the road a piece, there is the bridge, that you would be hard pressed to call a bridge, but it does cross a marsh where the Sedge Wrens Breed.  We could hear 3 or 4 calling almost immediately, ,but I t took a while before I could see one.  Sue was seeing it and I had no idea where she was pointing, and it turned out I was looking way too far in the distance.  When I finally did see the Sedge Wren, it posed nicely for photos before heading back into the grass.

Afterwards we headed to Shrike Road, where we scored a good quantity of Bobolinks, but no Loggerhead Shrikes.

We took a break for lunch and finished on Prosepect Road, where we heard and briefly saw Marsh Wrens, but did not find any Virginia Rails.  Though we did not see shrikes or Golden-winged Warblers, I would say this was one of my favorite visits to The Carden Plains.  I also was able to add another 5 species to my year list, giving me 315 with trips to Chicago and Denver coming up over the next week to round out the first half of the year.

A few more photos from the day at Carden:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Worm-eating Warbler

So, where am I this time and what was I looking for?  I had one main target and a couple of minor ones. This trip took me to Philadelphia and Baltimore.  Wood Thrush was one, that I somehow missed during the height of migration but found in Fairmount Park just outside Philadelpia.  Another good spot one should visit while visiting Philadelphia is John Heinz NWR.  I was looking for previously reported Summer Tanagers and perhaps a Worm-eating Warbler, but most of the song birds had moved on, though there was a wide variety of species and the boardwalk was quite spectacular.

I still wanted a Worm-eating Warbler, and even more to finally get a photograph of a bird I have seen and heard many times over the past 5+ years.  Severn Run NEA, just outside Baltimore seemed to be a nesting spot.  In fact, Worm-eating Warblers have been reported all around Baltimore on e-Bird so I hoped to be successful in my early morning quest.

It had rained the night before, so almost as soon as I started walking through the forest my shoes were soaked and the damp was climbing up my pant legs.  I walked for some time without hearing or seeing much and after a half mile I was beginning to think I had maybe chosen the wrong spot to bird that morning.  But as I worked my way back out the birds started calling and I hung around an open glade where, to my surprise and amazement, I spotted a Worm-eating Warbler low in a bush.  No mistaking what it was, but would it sit still for my first ever photograph of one.  Nope!

But I had nowhere to go, so I hung around and after a few moments it did come out on a limb about 6 feet up and gave me some good looks from behind, a quick photo op and was gone for good after that.  Likely back to its nest, which they like to build from dead leaves on the ground.  Though they don't necessarily eat worms, they do feast on bugs, caterpillars, spiders and slugs.  Yum!  When first described by German naturalist Johann Fredrich Gremlin, the name came from the fact that in that in 1789 caterpillars were often referred to as worms.

I spent my last day enjoying the forests boardering Patapsco Valley State Park, where there are nesting  Cerulean Warblers.  Though the hiking was great, and there were birds to be seen and heard, I did not stumble upon any Ceruleans.  

I'm back in Toronto for a few days, before heading out on the road again, with trips to Illinois and, best of all, Colorado.  But first a day off to go birding in Carden/Alvar.  More on that in the next few days.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Return to the Curry Tract

Back in 2012 I was looking for a Golden-winged Warbler for my Big Year, and was told that The Curry Tract was a good place for them.  It took a couple of trips and running into a 30 year vetren birder to find one back then.  I went back the same time the next year and was astonished to find that almost all the vegetation along with hydro corridor had been cut down.  It was all gone, along with the Golden-winged Warblers.

However, time has passed and the area has returned to its natural splendor and have returned the Golden-winged Warblers, along with a host of other birds.  There were, it seemed, dozens of Blue-winged Warblers and I found one Golden-winged Warbler about a mile in from the parking lot along the "birding" corridor.  I did not get much in the way of photos, as the vegetation was lush and dense, and the birds would not sit still for very long.  But if you're visiting Toronto in the spring and summer, the Curry Tract is a great destination about 40 minutes outside the city.  It has a hidden entrance right across from Mohawk Race Track on Guelph Line and just up the road is a cemetery that's a good spot for Mourning Warblers in the spring as well.

Only a Field Sparrow was nice enough to pose for me at the Curry Tract:

Here I was surrounded by Blue-winged Warblers and Common Yellow-throats:

Just over this rise I could hear the Golden-winged Warbler before I even saw it.  Once again I failed in my quest to get a photograph.  I returned the following Monday hoping for a photo and it wasn't even calling.  However I did see a Black-billed Cuckoo so it was worth the return trip.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Birding in Boston: 0 vs Detroit: 6

No, that wasn't the score of a baseball game, but the additional bird count for my 2016 MLB Big Year.  This road trip was a 6 day sojourn through Boston and Detroit.  I had hoped I'd have had time to go down to Barnstable, where once upon a Big Year in 2012 I went down searching for a Little Egret, only to get Common Eiders, a Black-headed Gull and find out about a misplaced MacGillivray's Warbler in the Fenway Victory Gardens.  However, this trip in to Boston time was at a premium and I just didn't have the time to spend 3 hours in the car, so I limited my birding to Mt Aubern Cemetery and the Fenway Gardens.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery is a definite Station of the Cross for birders visiting the Boston Area.  It's nearly as big as Central Park, just as many birds yet far fewer people walking around.  And the scenery is beautiful and the monuments quite lovely.  You could spend a few days there and not see it all.  I only had one morning, so I started early.  I had hoped to find reported Purple Finch and Black-billed Cuckoo,(yet again), and found neither.  I did make a nice list of birds for my daily e-Bird list, but it was the peaceful and tranquil environment that made for a lovely morning.  I did run into a couple of birders who directed me to "The Dell," and it was even more tranquil.  All in all, a nice place to be dead or to go birding.  Personally, I'll take the birding, even if I didn't see any new species for the year.  

In the Fenway Victory Gardens I enjoyed the newly blooming flowers more than the birds, and it was nice to see the owners of the garden plots working in their gardens and even enjoying a picnic or wine and cheese, as they admired their recent blooms.  I also spent time walking along the Charles River, where the Canada Geese were also in full bloom, so to speak, with many large, new families.

So, after 3 days in Boston I was hoping that the Detroit area would prove a little more fruitful for additional year birds and I was not dissapointed.  Again, I only had 3 mornings to do my birding, so I had to choose wisely as to where to bird.  The Kensington MetroPark in Milford seemed as good a choice as any for its variety of birds,(did I mention I was looking for a Black-billed Cucloo?), so I reserved my Zip Car the night before and was on the road by 6:30 the next morning.  I was able to add Bank Swallow and Acadian Flycatcher to the list, but the flycatcher proved difficult to photograph, as it is a high canopy bird.  I heard it before seeing it and did get looks high in the trees through my binoculars, but it wouldn't sit still long enough for any photos.  I decided to move on, found the Banks Swallows, by the bank of the lake, and they too proved difficult to photograph.  Before I headed back to Detroit and work, I took one more shot at the Acadian photos and after playing a few calls on my iPhone one did come close enough to pose for a somewhat reluctant photograph.

That evening I saw in e-Bird that both a Clay-colored Sparrow and a Yellow-breasted Chat had been reported in a place called Patriot Park in Canton MI.  Reports seemed to indicate they were "continuing" and one birder even cave instructions as to which fire hydrant to look near for each of the birds.  What more could you as for?

Once again, I headed out early to look for Patriot Park.  Not so much a park as a nice patch of land that may have, at one time, been destined to become just another housing development.  Luckily for both the birds and the birders who love them, the town of Canton stepped in and made sure this patch of land would stay natural.  Natural it is, through it might be better renamed Patriot Wildlife Preserve, as it's not much of a park.  There is a gravel path that leads from a gravel road, round a bend to a housing development on the far edge.  Along the way, there are about 8 red fire hydrants. 

The sparrow was to be seen between the 4th and 5th hydrant, but I could neither hear or see it, so after a bit I walked to hydrant number six, where the chat had been seen and heard.  I heard the chat calling almost as soon as I approached the hydrant but never really got a good look at it.  Meanwhile, I could hear the Clay-colored Sparrow calling, just beyond the 6th hydrant.  He did come close enough to pose for photos.  I also heard a Ring-necked Pheasant calling along with many Willow Flycatchers.  So in two mornings I was able to add 6 new species to the year list, giving me 305 in the first 5 + months of the year.  Too bad there wasn't time to drive up to Grayling for Kirtland's Warblers.  

This morning, I had a 9am bus to work that I had to be on.  That meant I needed to be back at the hotel by 8:30am.  But I really wanted a photo of the Yellow-breasted Chat.  Risk vs Reward.  I would have to get up very early, drive the 45 minutes to Canton.  Have about 30 minutes to find and photopgaphy the reclusive Chat.  I heard him calling almost as soon as I arrived, but with only about 10 minutes to spare before I had to head back to my car, I finally spotted the bright yellow chest about 100 yards away in a bush.  I got my photos, and survived a traffic jam to arrive back just on time to get changed, packed and on the 9am bus.  To top it all off, the Jays won the final game in Detroit, making for a great ending to this road trip.

The Goose Families along the Charles River in Boston:

Blue Jay and Bee:

One of the Magnificent Monuments in Mt Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, just Outside Boston:

Entrance to "The Dell" in Mt Auburn Cemetery:

The Dell:

Boston Victory Gardens:

Bank Swallow and Acadian Flycatcher at Kensington MetroPark, outside Detroit:

Patriot Park in Canton just outside Detroit:

The Road to Patirot Park:

Savannah Sparrow:

Clay-colored Sparrow:

Song Sparrow:

Yellow-breasted Chat:

A Rare Selfie: