Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Death Sentence

The beautiful Northern Fulmar
Flying high alongside the steep and ragged slopes of Wales, the Northern Fulmars watched us inch closer to the edges of the sea cliffs. 

Steve stopped to smell the coconut tinged air of the invasive gorse.

As we got closer to the edge, I began to get sick.  Steve slowly walked the narrow trail along the steep cliffs to find our target birds.  I saw the narrow path before me.  One side was a free fall to my death into the ocean while the other was a fall that was sure to break every bone in my body.  So I began the climb back up the hill. Then Steve saw me returning uphill in a nervous panic. 

Steve walks the narrow path.  One slip and it's under the sea!
He came back up to get me.  He had no problem climbing the narrow deadly stretch.  The grasses were wet and slippery.  The slope on the hill didn't have a barrier to prevent me from falling into the ocean, but I believed in Steve.  He took my heavy camera and told me to focus on his footsteps.  I cracked jokes to make myself laugh.  I think I even threatened Steve at some point during our descent. For that I apologize:)  Nicely dressed Brits were sipping their tea or coffee on the bottom of the cliffs looking up at us and wondering if we were going to fall off the cliff.  

We had taken the trickier trail to the top.  I am thankful to Steve for his encouragement because what I saw was immensely beautiful.  There we stood at the edge of the cliffs.  Some people have even jumped off the edge because they had this free last thought to fly. Thankfully, I did not. I never realized that there were people out there who randomly jumped off of high cliffs to feel the thrills of free falling before their death.  All I know is that I wanted to throw up.  I can do pelagics and a million other things, but my kryptonite is height. in the hell did this sheep get there?!? There along the edge of the gray overcast world, we spied the Northern Fulmars preparing for the breeding season. It was spectacular.  

These birds weren't even a lifebird!  BUT I wanted to know more about them because I have never seen their breeding habitat.  I've only seen the Pacific subspecies in flight along the California coast. 

the Northern Fulmars of Southern California
Not all of our treks through the hillsides that day were frightening.  Most were quite lovely. 

Near a pasture and farm, we spied several wonderful birds along the stone walls. 

Northern Wheatear
It was exciting to get observations of the Northern Wheatears and Linnets.  Unfortunately, we didn't see a male Linnet in his breeding plumage, but they were still quite lovely.

Eurasian Linnet
As we went up the trail more, we spied the Von Trapp Family disappearing over the hillside. And probably into the ocean.

It was another beautiful day out in Wales.

This will be an adventure I won't forget anytime soon and I thank Steve for pushing me to do my best and move beyond my fears because it was worth it.  Until next time......

Monday, April 15, 2019

World's End

Willow Ptarmigan or Red Grouse(Britain)
When I hear the words, "World's End", I think of a coffee shop OR a place you can go to do some shopping.  I didn't think grouse.

female Willow Ptarmigan
I love all things grouse and I didn't think I'd get to observe these birds while in Wales, but when Steve mentioned them, I had to hold back my excitement.  Observing grouse on a lek is one of the most satisfying things a birder can experience out in the field.  Steve asked if it would be okay to get up earlier than normal.  Anyone who has seen grouse on a lek understand that these sacred mating dances are held at dawn or a little before dawn. And only during a specific time of year. The avid birder must arrive before sunrise to watch the several hour show.

Black Grouse prepare for the real mating dances
On this day, we witnessed the males getting ready for the big show as they practiced their performances with each other before the females arrived. 

It was an incredible show and I was thrilled to observe these Black Grouse do their thing for several hours.  Like the Razorbills, Northern Lapwings or White-throated Dippers, the Black Grouse was a much desired target bird to observe in the wild.

I still think about that day often.  Learning about observing grouse on a lek comes with a bit of foreknowledge of birder do's-and-don'ts.  1.  Get there early.  2.  Never get out of your car. Turn your car off. Use your car as the blind. Whisper and do not talk. 3. Stay for the entire time so that you don't disturb their mating rituals.(usually lasts for around 3 hours).  It's a commitment of time for one bird, but it's worth it.

Along the way, we were told about the magical Henoed creatures who lived in the forests around Wales. Apparently, these "people" are only found in Wales and nowhere else. 

the wise Henoed give us weary travelers advice
Lucky for us, we had an excellent observation of the Henoed!  They used these devices called "mobility units".  One of the Henoed warned us to be careful around any deer we saw in the wild as they can attack. But only when they are cornered. Note to self, NEVER CORNER A WILD ANIMAL. He may have saved our lives.

Micheal tries his first Black Pudding.  Steve assures us that it will taste better with HP sauce:)
In all seriousness, they were a sweet couple.  Without going into details, I needed this trip away from home.  So much has happened over the past few weeks. We live our lives thinking everyone will be okay and that there will be a tomorrow.  I can only develop a sense of humor for it all because saying good-bye to loved ones is so difficult.  Micheal has lost a dear friend to cancer and another to a murder-suicide.  My father is going into bypass surgery this week.  The birds seem to make it all better.  Driving away to our destinations with a nice cup of coffee to observe birds makes the pain and worries disappear. For a moment.

Again, thank you to Steve and Bonnie for a fabulous visit.  Wales is stunning and so beautiful.  You'll meet Bonnie in the next several posts.  I mean you've already met her, but you'll get to see more of her over the next several weeks.  I've been on the road here in the US collecting lots of data.  All that and so much more to come.  Until next time.....

Monday, April 8, 2019


We visited so many wonderful places in Wales thanks to friends Bonnie and Steve. One of my absolute favorite places that Steve took me to bird was Holyhead(pronounced Holly head).  

Purple Sandpiper
All I know about Holyhead is that it's a major sea port serving Ireland and Wales. There's a cool looking lighthouse that attracts a lot of people during the summer months. They walk down the stairs and cross the bridge to eat ice cream and then climb the stairs back up to the parking lot.  As a birder, I learned that this area is a natural breeding ground for several amazing birds like Razorbills, Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins. 

It is notable to mention that there are many great birding hotspots along the way to Holyhead. When Steve mentioned our itinerary for the day, I was excited.  I love ocean birding.  The rocky coastal area was full of fantastic sea life.  In a future post, I'll focus more on those things but for now, let's enjoy the amazing world of Holyhead. It's the furthest point you can go in Wales before hitting the ocean waters to Ireland. 

Northern Gannet
My first lifer was the Northern Gannet.  I was SUPER thrilled to finally see this bird.  What a beauty!

Once we reached Holyhead, I didn't know what to expect.  It was INCREDIBLE!  We walked down the steep stone stairs into the incredible secret world of Razorbills. Steve told me to gaze through the stone hole.  What I saw blew me away!

Little did I know but on this day I would get stellar views on one of my most anticipated lifers, the Razorbills. Observing these birds come alive from the pages of my bird guide was a total high. 

They were actively flying in and out of their sea cliff homes pairing up and preparing for the breeding season. 

These birds can be found along the Atlantic coast of the United States in places like Maine. This summer we'll get up close and personal with them again on Machias Seal Island with Ms. Kathie Brown. They are one of my focus birds this year.

Once Steve saw that I was ready to move on with more observations, he took me further down the stairs to Mordor:) 

We went to the furthest point before reaching the locked sky bridge.  To the left of the bridge, I could see more Razorbills and ........Common Murres!  They call them Guillemots. So I was a bit confused at first, but I began to mentally translate their Guillemots, Goosanders and Divers into my American equivalents. 

Take a closer look above and you'll find the Common Murres/Guillemots to the left and bottom of the picture. 

Black-headed Gulls
All around the birding world of Wales, we could hear and see other coastal birds like the Red-billed Chough below. 

This is one amazing bird.  We saw them along coastal areas near sea cliffs and rocky shores that always had some grassy areas. 

There was a gift shop nearby and so we stopped by and I did some card shopping. One could also get coffee or tea here.  And more ice cream. 

Black Guillemot
Being along the ocean is a treat, especially when I don't have a lot of large water areas around the Tucson area to bird:)

The gray skies were heavy.  The sea mist was refreshing. And I tried to memorize all of the little details like the ocean smells or new landscape views that seemed to be straight out of a wonderful foreign film.  It was really quite something to experience.  

I work and I work.  Every moment of my life is planned.  Currently, we're doing a survey for New Mexico and will be heading to Texas to find some new birds.  I do work as well.  This is the only week I have left before finals begin and then it's my nose to the grindstone as a teacher for the rest of April and May.  But even then, when I'm not in the classroom, we'll meet new friend Homer(from Florida) find our amazing Arizona birds.  And then our Tucson Audubon Birdathon with the Wrenegades begins as we raise money to help protect Southeastern Arizona's birds.  It's all a balancing act.  This post is dedicated to birder and naturalist Pete Moulton.  He passed away this last week and it was a shock.  He was a good man with a great big heart always helping others with ID's on their dragonflies and birds.  Pete was also an amazing photographer.  He will be missed.  Until next time.....

Monday, April 1, 2019

Birding Wales

Sheep were everywhere and there were so many little ones this time of year.  Very very cute!
"Wales?!", they asked. "Why not London or Ireland or Scotland?"  I wondered if they had been to Ireland or Scotland. I also wondered if they knew that London was a part of England. Or if they could locate Wales on a map. 

People run in muddy slippery areas near Mute Swans.  Look at the crazy number of birds in that pic! Pennington Flash
In my early 20's, I remember sitting in a bar along Lake Michigan having drinks with several Welsh friends. They spoke of Wales with a great fondness and I was fascinated.  I can't believe how many people, both birders and non-birders alike, were shocked that I'd go to Wales!  Only my British friends in the States understood. When I mentioned Wales to them, their eyes lit up. "You're going to love it Chris."  Wales is one of the most overlooked countries of Great Britain and the United Kingdom.  And it shows on ebird.  My mission was to fill in data.

The front shield of the Eurasian Coot is wild!
The jet lag was real.  But the drive to discover new birds was strong.  Once the adrenaline began to kick in, I forgot about how tired I was. We left on Saturday morning and arrived on Sunday morning to meet the expert birder that never tires, Steve Culley.  He whisked us away from the Manchester airport and took us to some wonderful English birding hotspots before heading over to Wales. 

Steve and the godzilla Mute Swan
We arrived at our first location, Pennington Flash. I got out of the car and heard lots of crazy new bird calls. And then I was overwhelmed by new birds.  And surrounded by REAL Mute Swans.  Normally they kill Americans when given the chance😉, but the ones at this hotspot were friendly!  Still I was hesitant to get near them.  I've seen what they can do to grown adults!

Eurasian Moorhen
Many birds had the "Eurasian" title so I got rid of the Eurasian part. Several of the birds were slight variations of their American counterparts.  Steve was great and talked me through their field marks.  

Eurasian Treecreeper or just plain old Treecreeper
We drove through some amazing scenery.  And I instantly fell in love with their crazy weather patterns and beautiful landscapes.

There were moments on our first trek when I'd pass out from exhaustion in the middle of a conversation.  Jet lag. I felt so bad. I wanted to bird 500 percent like I do when I'm back home, but I'd constantly fight the lack of sleep throughout our stay due to the very necessary early birding hours and heavy gray skies. 
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Oystercatchers are on the decline in the US, but in England and Wales, they were EVERYWHERE!  In fact, they were one of the most common birds found in a variety of habitats. 

the brilliant pinkish bill and legs of the Water Rail steals the show
One of the most thrilling discoveries came from this Water Rail above.  Rails in general can be tough to observe out in the open, but we lucked out on our first day. 

The Common wood pigeon was ginormous. They looked like pudgy chickens on branches.  And when they flew, I couldn't get over their size.  This species turned out to be another favorite of mine. 

Common wood pigeons
But dang, nothing compares to the cuteness of a European Robin.  They were VERY common. And often their vocalizations would confuse me because they had so many different calls. 

the European Robin
Steve had a plan and this blog will follow our daily treks around northern Wales and some parts of England. Each day had a very unique flavor.  We'll explore the Welsh coastline, interior, sea cliffs and highlands. 

If you've seen the "Big Year", one of the main characters kept dipping on the rare-to-the-US Pink-footed Goose.  I finally saw my first one this year.  They are beautiful birds. 

Pink-footed Goose
I'd like to acknowledge 2 people who made our stay memorable and exciting.  To Steve for taking us out and showing us the birding world of Wales and to Bonnie, who we've met on this blog, for hosting us at her place.  She is an amazing cook!  (Minus the black pudding) 😉  

I'm looking forward to presenting some of our crazy days in Wales.  There are 3 things I'd like to mention here.  1. It was a bit of a culture shock coming back to the US where people lack manners. 2. I'd be lying a bit if I told you that I didn't go through a withdrawal after coming back to the US.  I really enjoyed birding with Steve and it's not often that I meet someone who is as addicted (or more so) to birds than I am.  I hope we'll bird again because it was a blast. Our Arizona birds are awesome. Maybe after the Brexit deal is over:) 3. Getting to spend more time with Bonnie was great. Whenever she visits Arizona, we usually get to visit one day.  

Her place was so relaxing.  And her pooch Sophie was the best.  She protected us and it was sad saying good-bye to that furry bundle of love.  She'd squeeze between Micheal and myself every night for a cuddle.

Wales has so many wonderful birds, birding hotspots, pubs and more. "Why Wales?" Like New Mexico of the US, Wales is often overlooked by its popular neighboring siblings. One Welsh person even asked us what we were doing in Wales for a week (because, according to him, most tourists just pass through the area).  After my series on Wales, I think you'll understand why this place is an awesome birder's destination. Until next time....