Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ivory Gull for Thanksgiving week-end

Thanksgiving week-end means four days vacation time for me. I wanted to go somewhere. I had couple of invitations for the Thanksgiving, one in Ithaca and one in New Jersey. My New Jersey friend was quite insistent that I should come. I told her I will think about it. I wanted to go but was feeling too lazy to drive that far. Finally, I decided it was way too far to drive to New Jersey and instead would go to Niagara River to photograph Bonaparte’s Gulls. So by the time I decided this, Thanksgiving Day was almost getting to midday. Next day rain was in forecast, so postponed my Niagara visit to Saturday and Sunday, but I was still not sure if I really wanted to go.

Friday evening I read an e-mail on NYSbirds by Tom Fiore that there was an IVORY GULL seen at Cape May. This has been one of my dream birds. I had missed it by a few days in Amherst, Ontario, CA a few years ago. I had also looked for this bird on a voyage of Hurtigruten in the Norwegian Arctic Circle after IOC meeting in August 2006. This year late winter, in an awful snow storm, Ann Mitchell and I made it to Plymouth Mass, just to find out that the bird was seen by Jay McGowan earlier day around 3.25 pm and has not been seen since then. So when I saw Tom Fiore’s report, I told myself if the bird is still around on Saturday I will go. So I sent an e-mail to Bob Fogg to let me know if the bird was seen again on Saturday morning. Bob did not get my e-mail till Sunday late night. You can see slide show here.

Saturday morning just around 8.02, Tom Fiore again reported that the gull was seen in the morning. I looked at the weather report for New Jersey and Cape May. It was supposed to be nice and on Sunday around 60s. So thought I must go. I looked up driving directions. Google came up with 5 hr 21 minutes to my destination with 326 miles of drive. Then I thought, maybe I should call Ann if she was interested in joining too. Anyway decided to take showers first and see how I feel. While in shower, I decided it was too far to go to see just one bird and decided to drop the idea. As I came out of the bathroom, I straight headed to my day travel suitcase and dumped some basic stuff unconsciously. I realized my subconscious brain has made up that I am going. So in next thirty minutes, I did the dishes and tidied up the house a bit, collected all food material that I had for trip into the bag. Picked my camera and sound gear and by 9.39 AM I was out of my driveway and heading towards Cape May.
Initial drive around Binghamton was wet and windy. I listened to NPR news, Click and Clack Tappert brothers on Car Talk, who wanted to talk to Sal from Long Island again and again. On the way near the large dump, near Clark Summit I saw a raven floating in the air. I thought Raven was a great good omen. Further few miles down the road, I watched an adult Bald Eagle that enhanced my good luck I thought. I then listened to Wait Wait Don’t tell me show and by then I started losing NPR station and I was in religious belt of Pennsylvania by about noon. I decided to take a stop and pulled into Allentown rest stop. As I was about to enter ladies, I saw Ann Mitchell coming out of the ladies. So I waved out to her and told her that there is an IVORY GULL in Cape May and I was heading to see that bird and told her I was thinking of calling her in the morning but did not call. She was a little puzzled and asked me if she can leave her car at the rest stop overnight. I told her to go find out while I used the facilities. When I came out, she had already found out that she can park the car but at her own risk and she was ready to take the risk. We quickly moved her essentials such as binoculars and scope to my car on the other side of the rest house facility. Soon we were on our way to Cape May.
Somewhere in Philadelphia, I wanted to make sure the bird was still around, so I told Ann to call Tom Johnson to check if the bird was still in the same place. Tom assured us that the bird was still around and gave us the latest directions. We were hoping to catch the bird still in daylight.
We arrived at the spot around 3.20 PM to Bree-zee-lee marina, but were not very sure where to go. I saw a few cars coming out of marina that did not look like they belonged to someone who owned one of those boats in marina. So we figured this must be the place, so we drove into marina and sure enough there were tons of cars and people were looking around. As I pulled in, the gull in front of us was in fact IVORY GULL! I told Ann that is it! I quickly got my camera gear out and found my batteries were down  I knew I had another spare battery in my backpack, but was too anxious, fortunately I had my second camera too which had a battery that was charged, so I took a few pictures with it. My first picture was taken at 3.24 PM. Here is the chronology of Ivory Gull sightings:-
3.20 PM Nov 28 2009. We arrived at Bree zee lee (sounded like a warbler call, Ivory-billed Gull-Warbler?). We find the bird quickly. The bird was very active and continuously flying at fairly fast pace. It flew between the boats towards the road and then back to Cape May Harbor side and then occasionally dip into water to pick up something. Many birders were twisting their necks around to follow the bird’s movement. Bird photographers including me, we would swing our heavy camera back and forth and try to take pictures only to find that the bird is out of the frame or is too close to us and can’t even focus. At times he was just barely eight or ten feet above our head. Occasionally he would disappear between boats; he had a few spots which he visited often. Just around sunset he landed and spent some time somewhere away from us. So everyone headed towards the spot. But soon he was up and continued his flight. I wondered if this is what they did in their native land. It was so cold in their native land that they have to move continuously to keep themselves warm. He seemed to do his flights fairly effortlessly. As the sun started to hit horizon, all the gulls and the moon looked gorgeous. They all seem to have a bright fiery orange underside. Sometimes he looked bluish with water’s reflection other times he was bright orange. Later from others photo I concluded that he was picking some dead fish in the harbor.

4.37 PM. Sun is almost on the horizon, he disappeared for a few minutes. So I looked around and took some pictures of birders against the setting sun. But soon he appeared again. The sky had become pinkish now and Ivory Gull’s underside reflected pink from the plumage.
4.40 PM was my last shot of the bird.
By then Ann seemed to have frozen as the wind was still fierce, though it was supposed to have become calm by around 1.00 PM. I was totally unaware of my surrounding and cold etc. as I was too focused on the Ivory Gull. We decided to call it a day and go look for place to stay overnight, though I wanted to stay to know where he roosted.
We checked couple of known less expensive motels but they were closed for the season. Finally on the beach road we found a motel, which was open for next two days. We checked in and found some food for in a nearby diner and retired to the motel. We watched some silly movie called Foot Loose and went to sleep with a plan to get up early before sunrise.
When we woke on Sunday morning it was still dark outside. We decided to stop for some coffee and food before we headed to marina. We reached it around 7.30 AM. Chronology for Nov 29 2009.
7.30 AM Sunday 29 Nov 2009: We arrived at Bree-zee-lee marina. Everyone was milling around and there was no Ivory Gull in sight, but someone said that they had seen one at 7.00 AM in the morning. So we felt good and hoped for its return, while we had our coffee.
7.35 AM: The bird made its appearance. Followed its earlier day’s pattern of flight and then landed on one of the marina fences.
7.40 AM: On the marina fence. It was surveying the surroundings. I decided to walk on one of the floating docks to get a closer look and photograph. By then many others also had thought the same. So a dozen photographers and scope owners were walking on one of the docks closest to where the bird was with their heavy equipment and their movements made the dock shake violently. So when you took a shot of the bird, you get a nice blur of a bird. After sometime shaking reduced as the bird settled long time enough on the pole and so the photographers also got settled down after initial flurry of shots. Bird sat and preened. I actually saw it collect secretions and apply somewhere to the front which I could not see. But I did get a couple of shots that show exposed preen glands region.
7.46 AM: Bird is on the wing again. Several times landed on water and kept flying around into sun and over the water.
8.10 AM: Bird landed again close to where it was earlier. As photographers inched towards it, bird moved to a next pole at 8.10.59 AM. It sat there till 8.16 AM, while it watched us and surroundings.
8.16:59 AM: It was disturbed by people, or may be at the same time there was crow that was harassing the Great Blue Heron sitting on one of the fence posts further down disturbed the gull too. So the bird landed further away from us. The crow flew around the bird annoying it for a few minutes and the crow was gone.
8.30 AM: The bird was flying again and I got some blurry flight shots. Several times it was so close to us that I could not even focus and was too fast. In the mean time a Bufflehead and a Double-crested Cormorant distracted us to take their pictures while they were enjoying their bath and swim.
8.43.02 AM: It landed on the deck we were, behind us. The bird came to the same spot twice for no apparent reasons. To me it looked like one of the birder or a photographer was sneakily offering it something, but I may be wrong. At 8.43.26 AM it was gone.
8.45:17 AM: It was back to it s first spot close to where we were standing. It now did seem like that the bird did have some favorite locations where it returned often. It sat and watched and moved around its head a whole lot.
8.50:11 AM: I have picture taken at this time where it looks like bird shook his wet head and the water droplets are falling off his head!

Then he continued looking around facing this way and that way.
8.53:25 AM: He does that again. He shakes his head off of water!
8.56.00 AM: He is still in the same location.
I decided to try another dock from where I could get a better frontal view, though bird seemed to be further away from that spot. So we drive to other side of the marina and walk to the deck closest we could reach him. The deck is shaking madly as we walk on it.
9.04.40 AM: He shifts to another pole facing away from us. Turns around and sits for some more time watching boats and people from all directions turning his head around.
9.09.50 AM: He flew from his spot and headed straight to us.
9.09.59 Am: He lands on a pole just 12 feet away from us. I am so excited and I try to photograph him and catch half his body in my camera frame when he lands.
He sat and studied his surrounding, looked towards us, looked down and sideways. I keep shooting him trying to bracket my exposures while slightly changing focusing every time I shot. I also shot with my D50 using a 100mm macro lens. In about just 34 seconds, I took thirty one shots of him.
9.10.34 AM: He took off and went around looking for some food.
9.18.44 AM: I take a picture of him sitting on a pole towards north side. He had been there for a few minutes earlier as I spent some time watching him through Ann’s scope.
By then Ann was ready to head elsewhere and she wanted to head to car. If I had chance I could have spent full time enjoying this rare bird. I told her I will wait there till 9.30 AM.
While I was watching the IVORY GULL, when the bird was out of site or sitting at some locations for long durations, I chatted with other photographers and birders. I met Bob Fogg and he told me that he did not receive my mail. I also met Ned Brinkley, Renee Davis and many other people from different parts of the country. Some of the photographers had British accent, I wonder if they came from UK.
Later, we went to Cape May Hawk Watch platform and other locations to see birds. But nothing compared to the IVORY GULL! After a Pizza at Mario’s we headed home. I dropped off Ann at Allentown and we were happy to know that her car was still there. Except for a small delay of about 10 miles where there was a traffic jam due to an accident near Binghamton, I smoothly returned home.
We also saw some interesting insects. We had a Monarch, Painted Lady, Common Buckeye and a pair of Colias species. We also saw two Common Green Darners, one Darner sp. and an Autumn Meadowhawk.

Just after I hit I-81 from I-476 near Clarks Summit, a large owl flew over the road. I did not see any visible ears, so I presume it was probably a Barred Owl!
Thanks to Tom Fiore for keeping track of rare birds around New York and posting to NYSbirds and thanks to Tom for keeping us updated about the gulls movement!

There was some kind of soul touching spiritual satisfaction when the bird landed right in front of us and sat on for 34 sec on a pole 12 feet away from us!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Listening to migrating warblers

Many birds migrate at night and on a cloudy day with north wind birds fly at lower elevation and if you stand at right spot you can hear hundreds of them fly overhead. I was up on Mount Pleasant in Ithaca NY on 09/12/09 with others to listen to migrant birds. Every few seconds there were flight call notes given by birds. Initially, we heard mostly warblers from about 10.00 pm to 11.30 pm (at least that is when I was there) and then we started hearing thrushes and grosbeaks. I analyzed just one cut of 3.25 minutes recorded using my shotgun mic ME 67 with a minidisc recorder around 10.30 pm. In this cut I think, though I am not an expert there were 7 or 8 species of warblers along with veery, Swainson's thrushes etc. Based on the spectrograms of the calls, one of the calls matches very closely the spectrogram of Connecticut Warbler as show in Bill Evans' night flight call CD. I have posted the whole 3.25 minutes recording without filtering or tinkering along with few spectrograms in this movie I am posting here. I would appreciate comments if you have any. Have fun listening!


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Can insects learn to trust humans?

Blue Dasher -Pachydiplax longipennis, a dragonfly, is a very curious and smart insect. Generally, when you go close to them they take off. But if you go slower and watch them while walking closer then they become amazingly tame and trust you for whatever worth you are. I was in New Hampshire attending the Northeast dragonfly meet past week (July 30 to August 2 2009). Everyone in this group is armed with an insect net, some with very long handles of 8 to 10 feet. Dragonflies and Damselflies are very finicky and fast insects and some fly very high. Even when you turn your head in their direction they take off, so if you need to identify an insect you have to net them and look at them up close. But they also have the habit of coming back and sitting on the same perch or another nearby perch. But by being patient and doing slow movements you can teach them to ignore your presence. Some of them can be so very curious of you they can watch (actually stare at you) you with intensity, while keeping an actual eye on a passing insect. You can see this in one of the youtube videos. We were in a field near Little Massabeic lake where hundreds of both male and female Blue Dashers were hanging out feeding on variety of insects. Initially, several beginner odophiles (those who love Odonates or dragonflies and damselflies) were going after them and when odophiles learnt what they are, dashers were left alone.

I was interested in getting some videos of behaviors. I found one nice cooperative male and I could go close to him inch by inch and finally I was fairly close. I started taking pictures at 10.30 am. First time I went close enough he moved to another nearby spot. I kept going closer and closer, then he became more and more confident of me, but before finally feeling comfortable, he once hit me on my brows and once on my lens cap and that convinced him that I or my camera will not eat him up. So then slowly he would pick insects that were bothering me around my head and sit on a perch in front of my camera. While eating the insects he kept an eye for any other passing insects by quickly changing his glance sideways and looking up at the sky. I kept taking videos and still pictures and once, while I was taking pictures and trying to keep the lens cap wide open for some reason my left hand index finger was sticking out and at 10.38 am he landed on that. I felt thrilled and took some pictures of him on my index finger.

It was hard to focus as my hand was shaking. Then he sallied out and came back and I offered my finger again he sat on the finger. Some more pictures while he was eating the insect, then went out for few more sallies.

In these incidences all index finger pointings were not too far from the bush where he was sitting earlier. Third time he sat from 10.38.30 to 10.39.14 am i.e would be 44 sec on finger. Next time I was facing away from the bush watching him sally for insects around my face, I offered him my finger, he came and settled on it. I looked at him closely then turned around to take him in front of the camera, which was still facing the bush for some more pics. Turned him around in various angles to get pictures and he sat and watched me while he ate. In my opinion he trusted me and knew I was not a threat. But why sit on my fingers? Was my finger a very easily viewable perch as it was different from surrounding bushes? I know they like to sit on perch from where surroundings are easily visible, but that does not mean he need to land on my finger as there were equally good perches. This time he sat on my finger from 10.41.00 to 10.42.34 am, i.e. 1 min 34 seconds while I moved him around to take pictures at different angles. He chose my fingers not for it was best perch, but something else was going on his mind.

As I was doing this phone in my pocket rang. I had to take the phone and I was being called away by Sheila with whom I was riding to get back to the car as they are going elsewhere. So I had to let my pet Blue Dasher live on his own, while I moved away reluctantly.

A similar incidence occurred a few years ago. I was photographing a female Blue Dasher who was sunning herself with her body facing sun. I took several pictures and light was not right on her. So I put my finger underneath her and picked her up and rotated her the way I wanted and put her back on the perch she was sitting and photographed her a few times. After I finished photographing, she quickly turned back to the earlier position she was sitting. After this incidence I took a walk around Sapsucker Woods trail for about half an hour. On my return, I checked out to see if the female was still at the same place and there she was blissfully perching on her favorite perch and not bothered by anybody else passing nearby!

A few years ago, in Henri Pitteir Biological Station in Venezuela, hummingbirds had become tame and were trained to land on people’s fingers. I did not know this earlier, I found hummers flying around me and was wondering why. Then I learnt about their landing on your fingers. So I put out my index finger for them to land. A beautiful male Sylph with long trailing tail landed on my finger. I was admiring him, but he had a quizzical look on his face, he looked at me and looked at the feeder as if to ask me “are you stupid why are you looking at me, take me the feeder”. So I took him to the feeder. While perched on my fingers he drank deeply till he was satisfied and then flew away.

You can watch some video clips of Blue Dasher on Youtube at following links

Who does not belive that insects think?


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In search of Vesper Bluets Enallagma vesperum

An evening with Vesper Blues

Two weeks ago Anne Klingensmith and I took an evening kayak trip to Jennings Pond of Buttermilk Falls State Park. We found some Vesper Bluets (Enallagma vesperum), this was first time I have seen them in Tompkins County in last five years. Weather was very nice that day and they came out around when it sun was just starting to get duller, about 8.00 pm or so. That day there were as many as at least fifty individuals. They were landing on boats and one sat very close to my boat to make me feel terrible for not bringing my camera with me.
So next day, I returned again to Jennings Pond. I was hoping to find them resting in the grasses along the pond. I walked through scrub and marsh along the shores but did not come across any. I tried some other access to the but not sightings of Vesper Bluets. Probably, I was too early for them. I returned home disappointed. I could not go kayaking alone because I can’t get my kayak down from my car on my own. Next few days were either rainy or busy; finally today Anne and I again made a trip to look for Vesper Bluets.
I arrived at 6.30 pm to find Bill and Miranda with kids at the swimming arena. While I waited for Anne to arrive, Bill helped me get my kayak down to the pond. By 7.00 pm Anne arrived and we put our kayak in the water. Till about 7.45 we did not see any Vesper Bluets. We did see many Eastern Forktails- Ischnura verticalis, and many newly emerging damselflies and probably first insect we got was female Vesper Bluet. There were still good numbers of Swamp Spreadwings, staring at us with their lovely blue eyes as we passed them. Anne found some exuviae of probably some Libullelidae, but no Vespers yet. We almost thought that we will start heading out as Anne had to pick her daughter Phoebe from her friend’s place. I suggested that may be we go a wee bit ahead as that was the location where we had seen them in the past trip. As we were passing a small channel, first Vesper Bluet appeared. Soon saw four or five were in the area. By then it was past 7.50 pm. But all disappeared from the sight, they were so quick in flight that if we lost sight in background vegetation it was difficult to relocate them. They were very well camouflaged with the vegetation they were sitting on. It is very difficult to photograph when in kayak or a canoe as it is shaky and hard to maneuver the boat next to insect, though kayak is lot more stable. I finally managed to get a decent shot to prove that we are seeing Vesper Bluets. Later, I got few shots with at some decent distance. Photos are not so very spectacular, but Vesper Bluets can be easily identified! Based on the timing on my pictures, first picture I got was at 7.56 and last was around 8.20 pm.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Virginia rail chick vocalizations


Today evening several people (ornithologists and non) from the Lab of Ornithology, watched Virginia Rail and chicks at Sapsucker Woods. But looks like Mark Chao and family seemed to have had best view. Many of us thought it was adults who were making this sound. Thanks to Mark's observations and readings, now we know they are chicks!

Here is what Mark wrote to Cayugabirds

"My daughter Francesca and I found five VIRGINIA RAILS (two adults and three chicks) at 6:15 PM on Wednesday in Sapsucker Woods, in the same small cattail patch to which Charles referred in his earlier message.

It took us a full circuit to find them, but in the end, we saw the rails just at the southern edge of the cattail patch, maybe five meters away from the path where we stood. These were life birds for Francesca, and they might as well have been life birds for me, the experience was so thrilling and unforgettable. The adults were brilliantly sharp and colorful, and the chicks tiny, black, fuzzy, admirably confident afoot, and of course utterly cute. Their bills were white with black rings. (We saw both adults at once, and all three chicks at once; therefore I am positive that our count represents the minimum number of rails present.)

This patch is between the Lab of Ornithology and its closest parking lot, bordered on the north by the service driveway and on the south by the paved path that leads from the parking lot to a side door (main staff entrance) of the building. Dave McCartt and my wife Miyoko Chu have told me that people today variously saw the rails from the north and west sides of this patch too. If you go searching, listen for a distinctive loud "pee-eep!" vocalization, which the chicks were voicing to communicate location to their parents, or vice versa. (BNA says it's the chicks.) Note also that there is a culvert under the service driveway, through which the rails could possibly pass under cover on their way (back?) to the Fuller Wetlands."

Here is how they sound. Don't worry about the visual part of the clip just close your eyes and listen. Of course there are lot of disturbances and noises from all around, but pee-eeps are very audible.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Trip to Warbler Capital of the world: Point Pelee and Rondeau Parks

CBC trip

Twelve members of Cayuga Bird Club made a trip to famed spring capital of migratory birds of Point Pelee from May 8 to May 10 2009. Although we tried to book for a motel in Point Pelee in February, all hotels were full. So I ended up booking Howard Johnsons motel in Ridgetown. It was kind of blessings in disguise. This motel was just about 20 minutes from Rondeau Provincial Park, which is also equally good as Point Pelee if the winds are right. Also it is a smaller park and less crowded, at least you don’t rub shoulders with other birders or hit other birders with your scopes. As we were coming from different parts of the local area we decided to meet at Montezuma Winery on Rt 89. We took the throughway 90 to Rainbow Bridge, but we missed it and ended up at Lewiston, but it turned out to be better. I had looked up internet as to what was seen in Rondeau (RPP) and Point Pelee PPs (PPPP) and found Rondeau had better birds. From Lewiston, as all drivers were driving at different speeds, we decided to meet at the Visitors center at Rondeau park as there were better birds than in PPPP.

We reached RPP around 2.00 PM. As we entered the park we found a beautiful RED-HEADED WOODPECKER in a beautiful photographable spot. All of us started trying to get photograph of the bird. But as everyone was getting ready the bird flew away and hid behind the trees. While we were there we met some birders and they told us that a TOWNSEND’S WARBLER has been seen in the nearby area and they pointed it to us the location. By then two cars had rendezvoused, but we were waiting to meet the third car. Everyone wanted to go look for Townsend’s but I was the spoilt sport and insisted that we meet at Visitor Center and collect the third car too before we go birding. We reached the center, but no third car anywhere in sight. So we left message for third car occupants and headed for the shortest Tulip trail. On the trail someone told us about Kentucky Warbler behind the Visitor Center. So we headed there. Most of us could not see the bird, though couple got some quick looks. We took a round around Tulip Trail. Trail was comparatively quiet. We did see a few birds, mostly Magnolia Warbler, Black and White warblers and a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. By then we had spent almost more than an hour, and past 3.00 PM and no sign of third car. We got worried and tried contacting hotel to see if they had landed there. Most of our cell phones did not work in Canada. We decided to continue birding and we headed to Harrison Trail. We had just parked and were heading towards the trail, when Sara Jane spotted the third car and they also spotted our car. So we ran towards the car. Found out that they had a bad run over a metal part on the road and had two flat tires one rim badly damaged and they were lucky that one of the local guys fixed the rim by hammering and they made it to Rondeau. After the lost group joined us we walked on Harris Trail. We started seeing a few birds, mostly Black-throated Greens and a Magnolia, as we were watching a Black-throated green; I saw another bird flit nearby. As soon as I saw it I recognized it and yelled almost at top of my voice “TOWNSEND'S WARBELR” as I did not want others to miss it. Everybody quickly got on it and we watched it for quite some time actively foraging. Then it dawned on me that I can try taking some pictures and I did and they were good enough to id the bird as Townsend’s. A couple of other groups came by and we showed it to them and then it got lost behind the tangles of vines. We continued to Pony barn and brush pile to look for Golden-winged warbler that was seen in the morning. But, we were not lucky but we did watch some gorgeous Magnolia Warblers in perfect sunlight, some more Nashvilles and other usual birds. As we came off back to main trail, a Scarlet Tanager male sang for us from a leafless tree. We also found a Veery and some Blue Grey Gnatcatchers. Then we started to head back as we wanted to spend some time on Marsh Trail. As we walked past Pony Barn, we watched Gladys watching something and others waving out excitedly to us. As we reached her, we found that she was watching another co-operative KENTUCKY WARBLER. We watched it sometime before it got lost in the depression. We headed back to car and had our dinner of variety of left over lunch and breakfast stuffs. Then we headed to Marsh trail. On Marsh trail it was very windy; the place was covered with Yellow Warblers. Here we realized that yellow warblers had a song that resembled Northern Waterthrush. Then we later found that both Rondeau and Point Pelee had birds that sang like NOWA. It was very confusing at times, because now we were not sure if we were listening to NOWA or YEWA. We also saw a few Common Yellowthroats and White Crowned Sparrows and a SWAMP SPARROW and nothing much else. We reached our motel late by 9.30 PM. So when I asked how early next day everyone wanted to get up, no one said anything, but I suggested that we should be out by 5.45 AM as we had to drive almost three quarters of an hour to reach Point Pelee.

From the entrance of the PP Park it was another 10 minutes drive to visitor center, on the way we were blocked by a displaying Turkey, he insisted that road was a better place than in the woods as humans also could watch him. Cars got blocked in long queue behind us while Turkey was enjoying human attentions. Finally, we decided to overtake the car that was very intensely watching the turkey’s progress from road to woods. As we were nearing West beach, we were stopped by park volunteer and told us that the Visitor center parking lot was full and we need to park on West Beach parking lot. But fortunately the road was connecting the Visitor Center and we managed to park just 5 min away from VC. Now we were waiting for Gladys and Kathy to join us as they were in the damaged car that was driving slowly. Luckily, we saw them driving in at the visitor center parking lot. While we were waiting for Gladys and Kathy we met another Cathy (Sendell) from Seneca Falls and chatted with her and she gave us some of the locations where they had seen some good birds. We took ride to the Point on the shuttle. As we go off from the tram, there seemed to be a huge crowd and felt as if I was in Matunga market in the evening. So I suggested to our group that we take a different route. Initially, it was very slow, but slowly it picked up, we started seeing a few warblers here and there. Lots of Nashville and a Chestnut-sided warblers were being seen by people. Nashvilles were trying reverse migration at the tip, some would go away and others would go to the tip and out on the lake and come back. Lake had more of an ocean like look as waves were crashing on the shores. Someone located an Orange Crowned Warbler and most of us got to see. Bobbie, located a CAPE MAY WARBLER and pointed it us. As there were so many eyes, different people would call different species and everyone try to look at the birds. We literally were rubbing each other’s shoulders and our scope tripods were poking other birders. At the tip. we also some water birds, that included a flock of Red Breasted Mergansers and a couple of Common Loons. After an hour and half at the Point we started heading back towards visitor center along the road, several Orchard Orioles were defending territories and chasing away other males, Baltimore Orioles were ubiquitous. A Sparrow crossed the road and landed on tree. Laura immediately identified it as a Lincoln’s Sparrow. We found a forested seasonal path, so we followed it in search of a Yellow-breasted Chat; instead we found more Orchard Orioles and Eastern Towhees (some singing weird variations), Indigo Bunting. Larry kept missing Orchard Oriole and he thought we were making fun of him every time we saw one. We also found a singing White-eyed Vireo, who just gave us glimpses of his self, but as a usual habit, he kept to thicket. Through a long circuitous road we arrived back on the road about 0.9 KM from the visitor center. Actually, we were looking for a path to go to locate the previously reported Prothonotary Warbler. After a short break we walked the board walk and the Prothonotary was busy feeding in the marshy patches and we all got good looks but were very difficult to photograph as he hid among the bushes. Here were waiting for Laura to return from the visitor Center. While waiting for this Kathy who for last two days was looking for a Blackburnian Warbler and as luck happens she was the one to locate a bird in the newly leafing Maple. We watched it for quite some times. Soon we found a Northern Parula buzzing away. Several Yellow Warblers were calling and all had different songs. They had various dialects. It would be interesting to know how many of them were migrants and what is the local dialect or the local birds have all the dialects as they hear many migrants. Further down along the route we found a Bay-breasted Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak who was having a leisure toilette. Someone else had found another bird and others were trying to identify it and it turned out to be a Philadelphia Vireo. By then it was time to go have lunch and a bit or relaxation from birding. After lunch we went to Tilden Woods. This was not as crowded as the Point. Slowly but steadily we kept adding new species on this trail. We saw Redstarts, Swanson’s and Wood Thrushes, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Parula, Great-crested and Least Flycatchers. We then headed to Marsh Board walk in the hopes of seeing bitterns etc. It was very windy and cold and not many birds were around. But we did see some coots, Bank, Barn and Tree Swallows. There were a couple of Marsh Wrens, who flitted around and came into the open occasionally. I think wind kept them down. We located one of the spots where the wren went down in the bushes and heard him singing. So we were hoping to catch him when again he popped up. So we kept an eye on that location. As if to tease us, he popped up just a few feet ahead of us, far away from where he was seen going in and chatter in front us and dash to cover again. We did not have any luck with bitterns and sora. Today everyone wanted to eat a good dinner and go to bed early as they were tired. After local enquiry we found a well respected restaurant in downtown Leamington and ended up getting some hot meal. Next day morning we decided to go to Rondeau instead of driving all way back to Point Pelee. That was a great decision. I wanted to go listen to the dawn chorus early morning, but everyone called me “boot camp leader” put their foot down and decided to leave the motel by 6.00 am. Secretly, I too was happy to sleep longer.

Ironically, my group was the last one to arrive at the Harrison Trail next morning. As we arrived the other two car passengers were watching a bird intensely, when they saw us, they told us they are watching a CAPE MAY WARBLER. So we all piled out and looked for it. Soon another Cape May joined in, and then the third one was located and in one area there were as many as five of them. Then it turned out that it was a CAPE MAY DAY in Rondeau. They were everywhere and singing. Interestingly we did not see and any females. May be we just did not pay enough attention to drab females as there were so many beautiful males all over the place. Or simply females were still not migrating. Blackburnians were also singing and some of them gave us spectacular views from up close. I was photographing one of the Blackburnians and I followed him as he moved from one spot to other. He occasionally stopped singing and preened and rested for a few seconds. I watched him once almost fall asleep. He sat and his eyes were just closing, but suddenly he jerked up and gave a bar of a song. It looks like, after a long trip, they can’t even take a bit of rest for the fear of losing the territory to a rival male. I felt sorry for him. Also, only Nashville’s were the birds that did not sing while all others sang. So why is that? Is it the birds we were watching were all females and the males had already passed through? The Nashvilles are monomorphic and are difficult to distinguish between males and females. Harrison trail was dripping with warblers and we ended up finally seeing as many as 19 species of warblers along this trail. By mid morning we headed back to visitor center and did Tulip Trail, but did not see anything of note. Here Gladys and her group split up to head home sooner as they were driving slower, while the rest of us decided to go to Spicebush trail. We did come across some mixed hunting flocks but nothing as spectacular as Harris Trail. One note of interest was, we saw a fully fledged American Robin baby, which I thought was very early. After lunch we too decided to head back home. Just as we were nearing MNWR, as there was still light, Stuart wanted to take a quick drive around wildlife drive to get shorebirds that we had missed. So we made a quick dash and found a few shore birds that included Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Blue Winged teals and Ospreys. We returned home fully satiated with warbler viewing! Our total trip tick was 110+ species of birds and two species of dragonflies and three species of butterflies.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An evening with Miilion birds in Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

Like others, I too decided to take advantage of good weather and go look for birds, though good weather is often bad to see birds. Also, always my dilemma is where do I stop on the way. My main aim for today was chasing some wild white geese, so I decided to skip lake shores and go to back roads. I started around 1.00 P.M. I drove my favorite Rafferty- Dixon road route.

On Rafferty, there were a few Horned Larks singing along the road, but none stopped for me to look at them even for a minute. A big flock of crows was harassing something in the grass and I could not see what it was, I presume maybe it was an owl. One female Harrier scanned the fields for something for an early dinner. They seem that they are highly motivated to concentrate their gaze toward the ground.

Dixon Road was fairly quiet except for a few more scattered Horned Larks and a pair of Kestrels giving a hard time to Red-tailed Hawk. I stopped and watched them. After the hawk was chased across the field on the other side of the road, Kestrels came back and sat on wires excitedly talking to each other, feeling good that they have chased the hawk out of their territory. At the end of the Dixon road, I ended up down toward the lake just near Aurora Fire Station.

Around Levanna, I found hunters putting fake paper/plastic Snow Geese that were fluttering funnily in the air. Just along the shores of Gwywood (?), where there are some mega houses that sit very close to the shore and block the view of the lake for all others, were thousands of snow geese. There was a gap between two houses just enough to watch a few hundred geese. So I pulled out and scanned through the crowd to look for any other species geese among them, but did not find any.

I was planning on heading straight to Muckland via Rt. 90, but then decided I want to look at Eagles at the Mud Lock. The eagle was sitting on the eggs with only head visible. As I was so close to the visitor center, decided to check if the drive was open and it was.

On the main pool I found one CACKLING GOOSE with five other Canada Geese that were swimming closer to the island just past the first Seneca Spillway. But as I was getting ready to take pictures, they moved behind the grass. There were plenty of ducks which others have already described. I did spend sometime photographing and watching No. Shovelers at Benning’s Marsh.

Then I headed to East Road. At the Knox -Marcellus view point, there were 16 TREE SWALLOWS, that were excitedly fighting with each other for a few seconds and next few seconds back to insect hunting. When I went close to their would be nest box, they chirped over my head. From here I could see the vast white mass on the Muckland. I stopped at Muckland and watched the SNOW GEESE, but decided to come back later in the evening to watch them take off in the evening light.

I headed to Carncross Road. There I found a SANDHILL CRANE feeling lost and all alone. I am wondering if the female has already started nest. I also met some other people and Cindy told me that they were seeing some 7 eagles. I did watch four eagles of which three of them were adults. On Rail Road Road, I found thousands of Pintails, softly humming and take off as the Northern Harrier swooped over them. There were also lots of Tree Sparrows some of them were singing and all wanted to sun themselves on one particular tree. Every time I approached them they would fly away but if I moved away, would come back to the same tree again and again.

Finally, it was time to go back to SNOW GEESE on Muck. I parked near first potato building and watched the snow geese as they flew and mulled around. While, I was scanning for a Ross’s all the geese in the front row suddenly looked up and started calling and soon took to air. I did not know what was it that alarmed them, I did not see anything that I would think would alarm them. It always intrigues me, why some geese take off and some as group and some as threes or twos and others single. I watched a single goose coming back toward the group honking and go in circles and finally land. I wonder, if this goose took off by mistake when its group members did not fly after going some distance realized that its companions are not there, so did it come back and search for the companions till it found? So many interesting behaviors to observe and solve. I spent time till almost it was time for sunset. Snow geese stretched over the Mucklands as far your eyes could see.

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I wanted to head towards main pool to observe blackbirds coming in to marsh. But as I was on East Road, I started seeing rivers of Blackbirds, mostly Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds coming from west of Mucklands. Some flocks would stop in woods and once the group built up, they would take off. Soon that place would be occupied by another group. It was a dilemma whether to watch from this point or go to main pool.

I headed further towards the Tschache Pool. Here I could not resist, I had to pull out and watch them. Every tree was covered with throngs of Blackbirds all calling. There seemed so much excitement and exuberance of energy in them, it was impossible that they could not rub on that to me. In the late orange light of setting sun, the wings of Grackles were almost reddish, they looked like Sirkeer cuckoo or the miniature Coucal (Crow Pheasant). They would lift their wings and let out a call. The male Red-winged Blackbirds were chuckchuking. In the crowd I was searching for one possible Yellow-headed Blackbird but found none. I did a see a few female Red-winged Blackbirds, they sat quietly, I watched a couple who had fluffed their feathers and sat looking down, as if they were thinking. Were they thinking - ‘no not one more breeding season again so soon ‘ One more interesting thing I felt was that even though they are making some much of noise the noise was not of annoying quality. In Mexico the Melodious and the Great tailed Grackles can be a little bit annoying with their high pitched songs. Or the din of traffic honking in the evening at Matunga market was annoying. But this sound some how seemed to have cancelled each others noise by interference and rest of the sound was something more soothing like a river flowing over rocky bed. From here, where ever I looked in the sky, as far as my eye could see were throngs of birds continuously heading towards marsh. Some of them would stop for sometime on one tree and the take off and in next few seconds a second group has occupied the place. It was amazing to watch them.

I again stopped at North Spring pool and looked around, they were still coming and coming. As soon as they took from nearby trees for a few seconds it would seem like there was almost a dead silence (comparative feeling). What a contrast from watching sea of white birds earlier in the day and end the day with sea of blackbirds. I am not sure how many Blackbirds were there.
I had same questions as those for geese, what are these groups, are they all from one particular population? Family members and neighbors? How would they recognize each other in such group?

While driving along the west side of the lakes, I could see at least another three large rafts of SNOW GEESE in the middle of the lake till Warwick. There were few black rafts of CAGO, but they were still streaming in as I was driving, they seem to have better eye sight.

One the whole, I must have seen lots and lots of birds for the day. A million, trillion or Obamamillion (as Peter Segal has coined the new name after stimulus bill amounts)?

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Howlers in Guatemala

I spent a few days in Yaxha and Tikal region of Guatemala in Dec-Jan of 2008 and 2009.

I stayed in an ecolodge, Hotel Sombrero. It was a quiet, rustic location away from the crowd in a private wooded area. First morning I wanted to be up early and be out recording, but I felt I was hearing rain, so decided to sleep longer. All of a sudden as the dawn was breaking I heard the heart tearing sound. Immediately realized that howlers are just in a nearby tree. I quickly set up my recorder and lied down on the bed listening to them without any movement.

I presume alpha male was the one who first woke up. I could hear him taking deep breath and then pouring all that air out with some additional energy. I could almost feel that he has a large lung. As he woke up his sound became louder and louder. He went on for more than ten minutes. Almost at the end others joined him. His sound was so loud that the dawn chorus of other birds were drowned in howls of Howler.

Next day evening I decided to take a walk to Sombrero ruins that was on the hotel property. As I started the walk, I could hear the howlers in some distance. When I reached the gully and stood for sometime, I heard two groups of howlers calling one after the other. It was very eerie and scary. Initially, I thought it was I who was the cause of the commotion, but it went on. If it was in India and monkeys were calling then I would have thought a leopard or a tiger was in the vicinity and that agitated the monkeys. So here I thought may be a puma or a jaguarundi was on the prowl. I continued my walk with a bit of hesitation to make sure that there are no carnivores in the vicinity. I listened for their sounds and tried to smell for carnivore. After half an hour I reached the spot where the monkeys were. My arrival further agitated two of the howlers that looked like an adult and a teenager. Both howled at me. They would take deep breath and let out the howls. After about 20 minutes of watching, recording and listening I decided to walk ahead to a quieter place to listen to birds. Somehow my gut feeling made me a bit uneasy about what was around me. May be it is just the jungle sense I have picked up in India. Also, it was getting late and was not sure how much I had to walk, so I increased my pace. Once I reached the path, which was parallel to road, I felt better to slow down.

It was a great experience to listen to these large lunged giants!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Merlins nesting in downtown Ithaca NY in 2006

I was listening to Martyn Stewart's blog of Merlins in Seattle. My memory went back to our own Merlins nesting near Schulyer House, close to downtown Ithaca. I got curious to see what kind of sounds they were making and what was surrounding sound scape. Did the traffic noise affect them or did their presence had affect on other local nesting birds? Listen to a clip of their sounds, male and female talking back and forth and it seems no other birds were generally affected. Cardinal was doing his song, House Sparrows that were main food of Merlins, also seemed blissfully unaware of their being around as you can hear a male sparrow singing. Unfortunately, I do not have merlin's pictures, so the sound is dubbed over a cardinal's picture.

Merlins are such fun creatures!