Monday, June 24, 2019

"Maine-iac Birders"

I had arrived at the tail end of migration yet again. The minute I saw Blackpoll Warblers, I knew the game was over. My quest for Bay-breasted and Cape May Warblers would have to wait for another day. 

How does one say gaudy in Maine-ish?
But that didn't stop our grand adventures.  Birding around Maine is as scenic as it gets in the US.  However, the bugs were relentless.  Black flies, mosquitoes and ticks were in full force.  And I thought Wisconsin was bad.  Maine, besides maybe Florida, beats most of the states for crazy bug attacks. Although, I've heard Alaska is a nightmare in summer. They say bird along the coast, but honestly, the coast was just as bad. 

Broad-winged Hawk
Between the odd and fantastical, we discovered many incredible birds together. I loved seeing several bird species better.  Several were on my list of "must see again". 

As Kathie and I both explored beautiful spaces near her home, we observed many birds singing and moving about branches. 

Blackpoll Warblers are one of the last warblers to migrate
Many birds were setting up territories. 

Bobolink males call and set up their territories
And between the constant attack of the blackfly, I was able to get off a couple shots here and there.  It's no wonder why warblers love Maine.  There's plenty of food for them there:)

Then an amazing thing happened!  I was able to get wonderful observations of a bird I had only seen briefly ONCE, the Scarlet Tanager. 

When they are breeding, they are super difficult to observe.  Luckily we hit a fantastic observation window where they were still moving and calling out in the open.  I not only got to see this bird once but MANY times.  We even rescued an injured one!

Purple Finches are wonderfully colored and were in good numbers everywhere we went. 

A finch dipped in raspberry jam, the Purple Finch
Vireos made me cringe.  They all sound similar.  My job was to find a Philadelphia Vireo and separate it from the Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos in the area. 

A pair of Red-eyed Vireos
Some birds are super tricky.  I had some work ahead of me.  Every day we went out and counted birds. 

Even though the migration was coming to an end, there were still a lot of great warblers out there. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler
A Veery popped out into the open. 

The exciting shrill, "Free Beer!", of the Alder Flycatcher made us smile. 

Alder Flycatcher
The picturesque Cedar Waxwings posed often in budding Apple Trees. 

Cedar Waxwings
Baltimore Orioles collected cattail fuzz for their nests. 

female Baltimore Oriole
Gray Catbirds appeared from behind our backs always watching us from the shadows. 

Gray Catbird
Black-throated Blue Warblers were loudly calling inside the forests. 

Black-throated Blue Warbler
And this Ruby-throated Hummingbird fiercely protected his feeder from other hummingbirds. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The electronic warble of the Bobolink was a common sound among the wildflower tinged grasses.

In short.  It was nice revisiting several bird species that I don't get to see often in Arizona.  Once we finished our first sweep of the common birds, we began our journey for the harder ones.  And those stories will be told over the next several weeks. So until next time, use some bug spray:)  This wet and cold summer of the North has arrived. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Machias Seal Island

My dream shot that I have pictured in my head for so many years becomes realized.  The Northern Gannet.
At the beginning of this year, I set some goals for myself.  I really wanted to study Razorbills and several sparrows in better detail.  In the whole scheme of things, this year has had a slower track with some retread, but I'm methodical and had a strong desire to understand habitat, sounds, and observe a particular set of birds I had seen only once in my lifetime. There were some birds I wanted to revisit again even if they weren't lifebirds.  And you'll see why. 

Scheduled almost 5 months in advance, Kathie and I both set out for Machias Seal Island.  While the Hardy Boat tour out to Eastern Egg Island was nice, it didn't provide the observations I had been hoping for with these birds. Plus the waters were rough and our pelagic out to the island was not great for Kathie.  So we crossed our fingers and tried something different. 

A happy Kathie sits next to a journalist
We headed to Machias Seal Island which is like the neutral zone between the Canada and US border.  While the Canadian government maintains the lighthouse, the island is left unmarked by either side and benefits from both governments. It is here on this island that one can find over 6ooo pairs of Atlantic Puffins nesting.  

It was the most perfect pelagic out.  It was overcast at first in Cutler, but once we left the dock, the clouds began to open and the sun came out!  It was a photographer's dream!  To top it off, we experienced smooth sailing the entire way there. 

If the waters are choppy, birders have to stay on board the vessel.  Normally there are about 20 some passengers, but for some reason on our day out to sea, 15 of them cancelled.  When I say it was the most perfect day, I am not exaggerating. 

Common Murre
We arrived to the slippery dock of Machias Seal Island.  All around us we watched Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Common Murres, Arctic Terns and a Northern Gannet fly around us!

While I'm a huge fan of sparrows, grouse, parrots, gulls and several other families of birds, I really really dig ocean birds which include the alcids. 

Only a few decades ago, these islands were barren or mostly barren of any puffins along the north eastern part of Maine.  During the summer of 2014, thousands of puffin chicks died when their normal food source disappeared due to warm waters. However, since then, with lots of conservation work, these birds are thriving and doing well.  

All predators, including rodents and Great Black-backed Gulls, were exterminated from the islands.  Because of this controlled effort, puffins, murres and Arctic terns have also come back in greater numbers. 

I have a confession.  While I love the Atlantic Puffins, I love the Razorbills and Northern Gannets a tad more.  How do I know this?  When I got home, I discovered that I had taken more pics of Razorbills than of the Puffins. 

Because the sun was so cooperative for the photography, I was able to get fantastically detailed pics of a normally difficult ocean bird.  It's all about the eye with this bird.  Often the eye of the Razorbill blends in with the rest of the black.  But thanks to excellent lighting, I was able to get the detail. 

I watched these birds copulate, fly, and socialize.  They didn't mind the Atlantic Puffins moving around their spaces. The two species seem to coexist well together.  Common Murres stuck closer to the ocean and were always seen together. 

Kathie and I had a good laugh as the birds would peek down into our hide and watch us watch them.  We'd hear "tap tap tap" on top of our blind.  I hate to use the word "cute", but it was. 

We were given an hour inside the blind and it was great.  Here I was with my friend out in the middle of the ocean observing these amazing birds.  Life doesn't get much better than that!

Again, I can't stress to you all how much we lucked out.  Often a pelagic can be cancelled due to rough ocean waters.  Just the day before, the trip had been cancelled and the following day after us, the waters had become choppy and birders were denied access onto the island due to the dangers. Reservations book fast and must be done early in the year.  Once you book, you cross your fingers and hope the weather plays nice for your trek.  It's always a gamble. 

Common Tern on nest
As is the case with Maine, weather can change quickly.  On our way off the island, the sun was replaced with overcast skies.  Rain had come back into the forecast.  It's like Mother Nature waited for us to do our work. 

Common Eiders
It was beautiful observing birds without a ton of people around us. 

As we left our world of "Jurassic Park", I just sat back grateful for the experience.  I also was excited for Kathie as she added the Razorbill species to her life list!

These are the days that birders dream about.  Over the next several weeks, we'll do some birding in Maine.  

Until next time.....

PS.  Atlantic Puffins sound like lawn mowers:)

Arctic Tern

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Lek Trek

We begin with an idea. Then a plan takes shape. 

I have studied this bird for years and have only dreamed about observing this vulnerable grouse dancing on one of their leks. 

This is one of the most threatened grouses of North America.  Banding and several conservation projects continue to help prevent the decreasing population trend of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. 

Our whole trek out to Texas and New Mexico was based around this bird.  Months of planning went into this one singular moment. I am thankful Gordon is retired and had time to go through the communications that were needed to observe this bird because it took awhile to contact the right people.  

Knowing the right people also helped with the  connections to help us access this site. A birder's reputation is important. 

We checked into our hotel in Roswell and then took the USS Betty outside of town into the grasslands to survey the area before our early morning departure for a potential observation of these birds. 

We scanned the mostly unmarked roads and made mental notes of where to turn and park. We packed our food and used the bathroom before leaving. We made our exit from the hotel at around 4 AM in the pitch dark.  It was cold and breezy. 

Gordon took the wheel of Betty because my eyes are bad at night.  No lights.  No disturbance whatsoever to the lek mating dances. 

We parked in the pitch dark and opened our windows.  And waited.  And waited.  At 5:30, I heard something near us. 

And then, the party started.  We were so lucky.  Before us, there had only been a few glimpses of just one or two birds.  We were hopeful and because of our patience, we had 20+ birds dancing around the lek.  

We carefully took notes for the New Mexican BLM(Bureau of Land Management).  Gordon submitted our survey forms as he was the contact person. 

After several hours in the car, a bathroom break was needed but the lek show was going on.  Over time during these precious observation windows, birders have devised various methods to use the bathroom without disrupting sensitive species during important breeding or feeding times. Thankfully we didn't have to resort to any such thing:) A Northern Harrier ended the lek dances quickly and the birds flew off ending our fantastic morning show. 

Even months after this event, I am still glowing from our observations.  Everything flowed seamlessly together and that's because of Gordon's excellent planning.  Our next trek for grouse will be next year.....and I'm thinking Gunnison's is up for an investigation.  If you've done the grouse adventure with tour companies, I tip my hat to you.  I couldn't do it.  It's a lot of driving and sitting.  So it's one North American grouse a year until they are all seen:)

On our way home, we treated ourselves to a stop at White Sands. It was a great way to end our trip out to Texas and New Mexico.  Until next time....