27 September 2009

Unexpected Problems

For those of you who follow my blog, I know I alluded to a good post this week, but alas, life intervened. As I write this, a pelagic trip is being conducted out of Venice, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. I was one of the first to sign on for the trip, but on Monday night, I suffered from sudden extreme pain in my upper left chest. When the pain remained Tuesday morning, I went to the doctor and was informed that I had suffered from a spontaneous pnuemothorax. In layman's terms: my left lung partially collapsed for no reason. I was in the hospital for most of the remaining week, and avoided my dorm room for a few days as one of my room mates was just diagnosed with swine flu. For the time being, I am confined to nearby areas until my lung heals up all the way.

I am doing fine now, but will be grounded from crazy trips for at least a month. (Fortunately, my next crazy trip is ~ two months away.) Until next time, take care!

20 September 2009

Catching up on Common Birds

For the past several weeks, I have had the opportunity to bird with several people throughout Louisiana and catch up on many 'common' birds that I had never seen before. I don't have time to write out a whole post today, but thought I'd leave a brief update of some of the common Eastern birds I have been able to see for the first time. I will write more in a week, as I will be going on a Gulf of Mexico pelagic for Sooty Terns, Wilson's Storm-Petrels and any other birds we may happen acorss in the big blue. Until next time, take care!

New birds this weekend:

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) - finally saw and heard this species for the first time in Sherburne. After getting over my initial awe, I found about twenty more in two days. Still a spectacular bird.

Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) - a male of this species feeding in some roadside ragweed was a pleasant surprise. This species was hypothetical for me before this weekend, having heard a bird that I thought was this species in Grand Junction, Colorado in September 1998(?).

Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons) - after getting into appropriate habitat today, I got to see two of these spectacular birds. They were previously a heard only bird for me from Virginia and Washington D.C.

16 September 2009

Grand Isle

I slammed the door on the Ford Taurus and looked over at Chris West and Lanie Collette. "I'm going to hit the woods real fast, but I'll wait for you guys." They walked into the Sureway grocer, and I walked down to the end of the row of stores, glancing to my right at the beachfront levee. This was Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, one of the most famous birding spots in Louisiana, and the location of two Black-whiskered Vireos this spring. As I reached the end of the row, I turned, and looked down a road from another era. I don't know what Grand Isle looked like before the tourists came, but I have a feeling it was something like what I saw before me: a desolate road vanishing into the dark oaks of the coastal ridge, beckoning and foreboding. I walked down the lane and scared up a Chuck-will's-widow. I smiled, and wondered how many more were out there if Chris and I flushed one yesterday in Cameron. I continued deeper into this enchanted forest, but failed to find any birds. I thought back to Peveto, and realized that, not only were the birds here, but that they were in a flock. I just had to find the flock. I walked down to the end of the road, and saw a lone Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitting in the oaks. I started pishing, and waited. After about five minutes, a Red-eyed Vireo flew in. I smiled, realizing that the flock was on its way. Soon, about 20 Red-eyed Vireos were flitting amongst the branches and I spotted a Canada Warbler on a branch, and kept watching the birds. A quick pause by an Empidonax flycatcher on a branch became my first life bird for the day: a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. A trail bisected their numbers, but I told Chris and Lanie I would wait for them. They soon arrived, and we headed into the trees. Two Black-and-white Warblers crawled along the branches, and an American Redstart danced about in the branches. Chris sooned chimed in witha "Blue-winged Warbler!" I turned around and found myself 'face-to-face' with a male Blue-winged Warbler, another life bird for me. We watched the birds flitting through the canapy and I realized that all the birds we had seen had been in the upper stories, except for the Canada Warbler I saw earlier. I then began checking the low bushes for Oporornis warblers and was quickly rewarded with my third life bird for the day, an adult Kentucky Warbler. The flock had mostly left us by this time, so we wandered off into other parts of the forest, with Chris spotting another American Redstart and a pair of Canada Warblers. We soon decided to head out towards Elmer's Island for pelagic birds, as the heat began to make the land birds die down.

Elmer's Island WMA is mostly marsh with a small cobblestone area to drive across the mudflats for about 200 yards and then play on the beach. Here, where the cobblestones end at the surf, was a small concrete platform began eaten away by the ceaseless waves rolling off the gulf, stood three birders scanning the endless ocean for birds. The shorebirds cooperated very well, with Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover coming within feet of us, and a distant Piping Plover down the beach entertaining us as well. About a thousand Black Terns moved up and down the beach, and Royal and Caspian Terns plunged into the water. While Chris was scanning the distant flocks of birds for shearwaters, jaegers and gannets, a glanced upward in time to see one of the most incredible birds I have ever seen. As I grabbed my binoculars, I shouted to Lanie and Chris "FRIGATEBIRD!" The Magnificent Frigatebird has a wingspan comparable to a pelican, but it is a bird the size of a goose. It's wings are long and drawn out, like an albatross, and the impressive black body with the white revealed that this was a young bird. Over the course of the next hour, I was able to pick out two more in the distance, slowly and laboriously flapping as the looked down upon the swarms of seabirds, just waiting until one presented intself as the perfect target. As we searched the endless skies for Northern Gannets, a storm began to roll in off the gulf. The people around us slowly began to depart, until we were all that remained on the section of beach. Within five seconds, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up by thirty miles an hour. I clung to the tripod, determined to continue scoping the ocean. Chris finally said "I saw a gannet, let's run!" Although I had not seen the bird, I was beyond the point of caring. I grabbed the scope, turned around and ran. Unfortunately, I forgot to wear a belt, and my pants started to fall down. I paused to grab them and it was too late. The downpour hit me. I continued to run down the cobblestones, and finally made it back to Chris's car soaked but no worse for wear.

On our way back, we paused briefly for lunch at the nearby Kajun Eatery. There, I had a delicious cheeseburger and stepped outside breifly. I scared up a really dark colored House Sparrow, and though it was kind of odd. Soon, the bird returned, and I was aware that this was not a House Sparrow but an Ammodramus. Chris came outside and I said "Check out the House Sparrow." He glanced up and said "Yeah they're... Wait. That's not a House Sparrow!" I chuckled and said "I know, I think it's an Ammodramus. Probably Seaside." Chris nodded and agreed that that was indeed what it was. As we went to our cars, we found six more picking the bugs off of car grills and the window screens. It was a great opportunity the Seaside Sparrows, which I dubbed the 'Cajun House Sparrow.'

The rest of the day was uneventful, as Chris drove across the Pontchartrain Causeway and returned me to LSU, and life fell back into it's normal pace. However, now that I know what is out there and what goodies lie in the coastal groves of oak and acacia, I can't help but be impatient to return. You never know what will show up next...

15 September 2009

Goin' Coastal

Chris West and I drove down I-10 West, heading for the legendary parish of Cameron, Louisiana. Now famous for the Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher collected there in 2008 (the first time this species was ever found north of Panama!), Cameron has long been known in Louisiana for being amazing in general. In the past, Painted Redstart, Red-faced Warbler, hundreds of Groove-billed Anis, nesting Great Kiskadees and other spectacular birds have been found along the coastal cheniers of woods, isolated from the south by the Gulf of Mexico, and from the north by dozens of miles of Saltmarsh and Coastal Prairie. This creates a migrant trap collecting birds from every direction. Chris and I crossed the saltmarshes on our way southward after dark, pausing for a moment to see what was out at night. The calls of a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron quickly disappated into the unending marsh, and I was able to spot a roadside Alligator, watching me with ill intent. We soon got back in the car and headed towards Sabine, Texas, where we spent the night in Louisiana a little ways before crossing the bridge.

The next morning, we began parusing down the coast, stopping at the local beaches to see the scatted small groups of Western Sandpiper and Sanderling. At out second stop, we happened about Peveto Woods, a small, coastal patch of Oaks that is where the Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher was found. We got out of the car, bathed in bugspray, and headed into the woods, beating off deer flies the entire time. I went to the right, Chris to the left. I found nothing, as the flock was to the left. I ran to join Chris, and saw the lone Blackburnian Warbler he had found among the numerous Red-eyed Vireos. We began working our way eastward through the woods, and were surprised by a Chuck-will's-widow that flew around breifly. As we ventured towards where the bird was in hopes of refinding it, we found another small flock of migrants. Again, Red-eyed Vireos dominated the flock, but there were some warblers to pick out. After about ten minutes, we called it quits when all we could find were two Black-and-white Warblers, a Yellow Warbler, a Canada Warbler and a lone Prothonotary Warbler. Little did we know that just an hour or so later, another group of birders would arrive to not only miss our warblers but find a pair of Bell's Vireos.

As we continued on along the coastal ridgelines, we paused to photograph a perched Common Nighthawk. Though we only found two non-flying nighthawks, the fact that one of these was on the powerlines makes me think there were dozens of birds in the area.

Common Nighthawk, Cameron Parish, Louisiana

Near this nighthawk, we also found a small freshwater puddle with Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, and Black-necked Stilt.

We soon came to Holly Beach, a place that in the past has had Brown Booby and Black-legged Kittiwake, and decided to check out one of the first flocks of gulls and terns that we came to. I lifted my binoculars and noticed that the first bird I looked at had extremely short legs for a tern. Something about the bird bothered me, and I decided to check out the other birds and come back. As I worked my way across, Chris said "Whoa, did you see this tern?" Without glancing up, I said "The one on the right?" He kept staring and said "Yeah. Something just doesn't seem right. The legs and all... wait, could it be an Arctic?" Chris handed me his camera and I quickly snapped a few pics of the bird perched near an Common Tern. We kept studying the bird and it took flight briefly before alighting again, and then took off for good. Extremely pale wings with little/no black and the smallish bill on the bird all point to Arctic Tern. However, Chris's camera malfunctioned later during the trip so, as of yet, we have no confirmation on this terns identity.

Chris and I continued on our eastward puch along the gulf, checking out Caspian and Royal Terns as they passed over and stopping at several roadside oaks, finding Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Orchard Oriole, Northern Waterthrush and my state Hairy Woodpecker. Some of our other roadside stops even turned up Clapper Rail and Seaside Sparrow (a life bird). At one of these roadside stops near a lake, we found a gigantic flock of Neotropic Cormorants. They covered the wires like pigeons, making them sag incredibly low. We estimated there might be several thousand birds. I later learned that, had we counted them all individually, this almost certainly would have been a record high count for the state. I did manage to snag a single picture of one of the smaller Cormorant groups.

Neotropic Cormorants, Cameron Parish, Louisiana

It was at about this point of the day that the storms finally rolled in off of the gulf and forced us to leave Cameron Parish, and we headed in to southern Vermilion Parish next door for a little looking around. We were only there for a little while, but I did manage to get my lifer Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flying over and find a Swainson's Hawk, a pretty good bird for Louisiana.

We decided to wrap up for the day and headed even further east, managing to get Black-bellied Whistling-Duck above Highway 90. And, as the sun set, we neared our birding location for day two: Grand Isle.

14 September 2009

Megascops asio

The cool, humid breeze blew down the levee, carrying with it a faint whinny and tremelo call. "I'm telling you, he is right here." The Barred Owl pair called into the darkness, hoping to assert themselves as the top predator in these woods. We stared at the brush before us, waiting for the Megascops asio, the Eastern Screech-Owl, to appear. We scanned the trees and bushes with our dying spotlight, waiting for the inevitable darkness to win out and force us home without our bird. Just then, Chris West paused momentarily in the low bushes. "Got him!" I looked down, and instantly replied to Chris that "It's a red morph!" Adam Ulissy, my friend from LSU and ride for the night, just stared at the bird. "This is so cool." As we watched the little owl, I looked at Chris and asked if I could have the spotlight. I had a feeling we could get a whole lot closer. We began creeping up towards the owl, using the spotlight to keep ourselves hidden from the bird. When I paused for the last time before it took flight, we were four feet from this incredible bird. It was the first Eastern Screech-Owl Adam or I had ever seen, and it was Chris's first red morph bird. It was spectacular. However, karma came back to us for spotlighting all those owls, as we crested the levee and in turn were spotlighted by the Baton Rouge Police Department. After breifly explaining what the three of us were doing, the cop left and told us to have a good night. I wondered why he checked us out until I checked my clock and found it was four minutes after midnight. We had been looking for the owl for an hour and a half almost. And it was all worth it.

06 September 2009

To count or not to count?

Today was a pretty dead day bird wise. Besides the Brown-headed Cowbirds (7000 was our final count?), the Northern Waterthrushes an a cooperative Yellow-billed Cuckoo, not much was out an about. The skies seemed empty now that the Wood Storks had moved on, and a Roseate Spoonbill flying alone overhead was merely an echo of what was here before. However, while we were wandering around, the rapid hoots and subsequent whinnies of an Eastern Screech-Owl got out attention. As we sat there looking towards the dense underbrush, I realized one of the qualms about listing: the notorious heard only bird.

Throughout my life, I have only counted birds I have seen, and have gone to great lengths to see said birds. Getting views of birds such as Buff-collared Nightjars and Great Gray Owls can be difficult (unless you get lucky), but is very rewarding in the end. However, there are the occasional birds that you can never seem to get a good look at. The rocky pillars and odd canyons of Chiricahua National Monument managed to hide the Eared Quetzal from me the entire time I was there, only allowing it's unique squealing call to escape from the labyrinth of hodoos. It was birds such as the quetzal that made me start to count heard birds, but now, I am taking another approach. I have set up my life list with two columns: one for Heard Only (H/O) birds, and one for my 'Life List.' It seems only right to count the birds that you have seen, as you miss critical details and, in a way, the essence of the bird if you don't see it. Now, for competitions, year lists, and work I count heard birds regularly without giving it a second thought. But my life list not some competition or work related thing. It is like my personal diary. I can look through the spreadsheets at the birds I have seen and where, and remember everything I did around the time that I saw the bird. And, for that reason, my life list will only include seen birds.

As it stands now: Life List = 572 (H/O = 8).

And as a side note: I got attacked by fire ants for the first time today, but am fine.