Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Michigan: Kirtland's Warbler

     In June I traveled to Michigan from Pittsburgh, PA to try and see one of the rarest warblers in the USA, the Kirtland's Warbler.  At one point in 1987 there were only 167 singing male Kirtland's Warblers in their range, less than 400 birds. 
     The birds were placed on the endangered species list and a massive effort was started to understand what was happening and to devise ways to fix it. 
It was discovered that there was a one-two punch affecting the birds. They need a specific environment to nest in, on the ground beneath young Jack Pine trees, and they were being taken advantage of by Brown-Headed Cowbirds, a nest parasite. 
     The Jack Pines use fire to help reproduce. They keep branches long past the point that they dry out and become kindling and they also have pine cones that open with heat to release seeds. Fire burns everything in the area and only Jack Pines are left to sprout in the now fertile soil. But in modern times there were too many people living in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan that fires were not safe.  
     Today, through active and intense forest management as well as capturing of Brown-Headed Cowbirds, the population of Kirtland's Warblers have recovered to the point that there are over 3000 singing males. 
     To be honest, I had no idea about any of this prior to the spring of 2017. But after I found out about their history, I had to try and see them. Fortunately for me, Michigan Audubon leads tours in the summer to known nesting areas. I made my way to Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling Michigan, right in the middle of the mitten. I camped at the park and met up with the tour in a really nice visitor's center in the park. As we were waiting we could hear Ovenbirds calling from the parking lot and watched as Rose-Breasted and Evening Grosbeaks visited some feeders. After a short talk about the history of the Warblers we all drove off in caravan to a stand of young Jack Pines east of the park (no Kirtland's breed in the park itself, it's mainly White Pine and deciduous trees). We left the paved road and followed a dirt 2-track into the trees. It was a bit eerie to see the trees all 12-15 feet high with taller Aspens sprinkled in. We were told to listen for the call of the Kirtland's and then look for a gray and yellow bird singing. Shortly after our walk someone did see a grey and yellow bird sitting on a snag, but it was just a lowly Nashville Warbler (but a lifer for me!).
Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler - Grayling, Michigan
 We continued on into the trees quietly listening for the Kirtland's. Suddenly a warbler with a yellow breast was right there along the road. Those of use with cameras snapped away... but this time it was a beautiful Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler - Grayling, Michigan
     Once again we ventured on. Another hundred or so yards down the road someone heard the rising and then falling tones of the Kirtland's Warbler. It was coming from far off and the looks were really poor. 

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler - Grayling, Michigan
Then all of a sudden another call, this time right near the group, but behind some really small trees. And then another bird singing from the opposite side of the road, they seemed to be all around us. 

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler - Grayling, Michigan

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler - Grayling, Michigan
     I was fortunate enough to see a female Kirtland's Warbler. These birds are very shy and typically stay out of sight on the ground. It's the males that sing up high and why the census of their population given in singing males. 
Kirtland's Warblers - pair seen foraging together
Pair of Kirtland's Warblers (female below, male above) - Grayling Michigan
     You can see the duller female in the bottom circle compared the brighter male above. I was so excited to get to see these birds and to get such great looks as I did. Some trips go out and fail to see any of the birds. The group returned to the main road and we all went on our separate ways. I ventured west and found some more lifer warblers along a great stretch of road. 
     The next day, on my way back to Ohio, I stopped at a nearby location where some Upland Sandpipers had been seen. I found another stand of Jack Pines and wandered around looking at all of the power lines for sandpiper shapes. But not more than 300 yards into the woods I heard the now familiar call of another Kirtland's Warbler. 

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler - Grayling, Michigan
     I would hazard a guess that if you ventured into any young looking Jack-Pine trees in the area of Grayling and listen carefully, you'll hear and then see some Kirtland's. And if you need another sign, look out for these cowbird traps along the way.

Cowbird trap
Cowbird Trap - Grayling, Michigan

     If you do make the trip to Hartwick Pines SP, take the time to walk around the various trails. They were full of Ovenbirds, Blackburnian and Black-Throated Green Warblers. 

Ovenbird - Hartwick Pines State Park, Michigan
Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler - Hartwick Pines State Park, Michigan
Black-Throated Green Warbler
Black-Throated Green Warbler - Hartwick Pines State Park, Michigan

     If you do make the trip, take advantage of the free tours from Michigan Audubon. 

     Or attend the Kirtland's Warbler Weekend the first full weekend in June. 

Thanks for making it this far,


Monday, July 17, 2017

East Coast Trip part one: Ohio

Back in June I had the opportunity to spend a week birding somewhere. A friend of mine suggested trying to see Kirtland's Warblers in Michigan. I didn't know much about these birds, but after some research I was sold. I expanded the trip to include some time in Ohio too. I used eBird and to plan an itinerary. A friend of mine from Albuquerque now works at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in NW Ohio, so stopping at their famous boardwalk was a no-brainer, plus I would find some other places using the Birdseye app. I would end up with 29 lifers on my trip, with 11 of them being warblers, out of 150 species seen.

I'm going to mainly talk about warblers and some of my other lifers. Overcast skies and dark forest made for not so good photo opportunities, but I managed to get photos of almost everything new to me.

I started off by visiting Bath Nature Preserve near Akron Ohio. This was  mixed forest and field habitat with nice trails and a large pond. I didn't see too much here, but I got some good looks at maybe the most popular warbler seen, the Yellow Warbler.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler - Summit County Ohio, USA
Although not a warbler or a lifer, I was excited to get good looks at a Brown Thrasher. The one that I saw in Arizona was very shy and stayed in thick brush for the most part. But I got to see a few, including this one getting a big worm for it's nest.

Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrasher - Summit County Ohio, USA
I also saw many Tree Swallows, Song Sparrows, a Bobolink, Hermit Thrush, Red-Winged Blackbirds and a lifer Swamp Sparrow at the preserve.
My second stop was near Sandusky Ohio and Cedar Point Amusement park. I had hotel reservations for the night, but had time to explore Pipe Creek Wildlife Area at the base of Cedar Point peninsula. This is a man-made wetlands designed to replace what was lost to development. It was also the start of the terrible mosquitoes that I would deal with for the next week. I arrived just as sunset and made my way out towards the water. I passed a family of Mallards. I saw even more Yellow Warblers, so many that I reported 16 but it may have been more. I saw some uncommon Black-Crowned Night-Herons and added Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers to my life list. But the most exciting bird was one that was crossing the path behind me. I turned around to look behind me randomly and saw a King Rail crossing the path. It stopped just before reaching thick cattails and I managed to get some photos of it.

King Rail
King Rail - Erie County Ohio, USA
The next morning I was up early to meet my friends at Magee Marsh. I saw some surprising Mute Swans on my drive in. We were the only people at the Boardwalk, which hosted thousands of birders just 2 weeks prior to my visit.
We would see many birds on our walk, and may lifers for me. But the "rarest" bird was this late-for-the-season Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Yellow-Rumped Warbler - Magee Marsh, Ohio USA
The star of the show was this American Woodcock that I spotted just off of the boardwalk. We got to watch it for such a long time once it got used to us.

American Woodcock
American Woodcock - Magee Marsh, Ohio USA

American Woodcock
American Woodcock - Magee Marsh, Ohio USA
I learned that their long bills are flexible and they can use it to root around in the mud and leaf litter for food.
I did get to see one of the warblers that I was hoping to see, a Prothonotary Warbler, which breed in the swamp there, but it was too fast and the light wasn't good enough for anything better than this photo.

Prothonotary Warbler - Magee Marsh, Ohio USA
The second most common warbler on my travels was the aptly named Common Yellowthroat, which I saw at almost every stop. I saw this one on my way out of Magee Marsh on my way to Toledo.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat - Magee Marsh, Ohio USA
I was told about a nice place to bird outside of Toledo Ohio called Oak Openings Metropark. This was an amazing spot. The main attraction was a large open area in the forest caused by a Tornado many years ago. This made for a varied habitat of older forests and a younger open area in the center. It wasn't very good for warblers, but I got to see some great birds. This Indigo Bunting let me get fairly close.
Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting - Lucas County, Ohio USA
And it was a pleasure to see a few Red-Headed Woodpeckers, these two were inspecting nest holes, I believe.
Red-Headed Woodpeckers
Red-Headed Woodpeckers - Lucas County, Ohio USA
One of the lifers that I did get here was Field Sparrow, in the middle of the tornado scar.

Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow - Lucas County, Ohio USA.

After Toledo I traveled north in Michigan. I'll cover this part in my next blog post since I was able to see some great birds up there.

Thanks for making it this far,


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

(Un)Common Crane

    A few weeks ago an amazing bird was reported on the Arizona/New Mexico listserv. A Common Crane was reported at Mormon Lake, which is near Flagstaff and Sedona Arizona. A mountain lake surrounded by pine forests and cabins. This was the first state record for Arizona. The first report came in on a Thursday and I had to wait until Saturday morning to twitch it, and hope that it was still there. But my kids had soccer games at noon, what to do? I decided to wake up at 4am and make the 3 hour drive, try and see the bird in an hour, then drive back 3 hours for kick-off, easy right?

    I arrived at the lake just after dawn. It was just me and some elk. I found a turn-off on the East side of the lake and scanned the water for a large, grey shape. I didn't see it, but I saw some birders on the opposite side of the lake. One thing that I've learned is that if you can't find the bird, find the birders. I made my way over and a small group were at their scopes scanning the circumference of the 12 square mile lake. The lake reminded me of the Neuseidlersee in Austria, where I spent a week with a group from Birdwatch Ireland a few years ago (you can read about it here). Like Mormon Lake, it's a wide, shallow lake formed by drainage from the surrounding land.

     Back to the search. I recognized some fellow twitchers, but some of the birders had made the drive out from California the night before. We ID'd some crane-looking stumps. I spotted a large, flying bird that was very far away, but flew away from the water. But no Cranes. Then, the youngest birders there spotted something from way out to the south. It looked good for a crane shape, it was moving around a bit, but way too far for an ID. Forget Swarovski, we needed a Meade at that range. We all decided to drive to the Southern part of the lake and try to get a closer look. I made my way past some vacation homes to a dead-end road that should get a better vantage point. Some other birders had followed me and we all scanned to no avail. Then, from behind a fence I spotted a grey shape feeding in the grass. It was light above and dark below and looked to be the right size. I got my scope on it and ta-da, it was the Common Crane.

Common Crane
Common Crane - Mormon Lake, Coconino County Arizona
     Can you make it out there in the center of the above photo? We all wanted better looks and then I noticed the road that I had just driven in on a half hour before. We all jumped back into our cars and took off for a closer look.

Common Crane
Common Crane - Mormon Lake, Coconino County Arizona
What a great looking bird. We had an even bigger crowd at this point and we all congratulated the keen-eyed young birder from California who had the initial sighting. We watched it walk back and forth feeding for a few minutes. Then it took off and started flying around.

Common Crane
Common Crane - Mormon Lake, Coconino County Arizona
     To our delight the crane landed even closer and we got amazing looks at it.

Common Crane
Common Crane - Mormon Lake, Coconino County Arizona
     What an amazing bird and an amazing lifer an a beautiful location. I'm not sure how many Common Cranes see snow-topped mountains in the distance.

Common Crane and Humphrey's Peak
Common Crane and Humphry's Peak near Flagstaff - Mormon Lake, Coconino Lake, Arizona
     The Crane ended up sticking around for a couple weeks (the last eBird reports seem to be from May 14th) and adds to the amazing run of rarities to visit Arizona in the last year. 

This was also one of the first outings with my new lens. I added the Canon 100-400mm mark ii recently and sold my 300mm f/4L. I'm really happy with it so far, although I need to sort out a monopod and an easier way to carry it. But it's a quality piece of hardware.

Thanks for making it this far,



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tour de Tucson

This past Sunday, 9th of April, I took a late trip down to Tucson. An American Bittern was being seen at Sweetwater Wetlands and this was a bird that I've been wanting to see and photograph. I also wanted to try and see an Olive Warbler and an Elf Owl, all of which were in the Tucson area.
Despite reports of it being out in the open on the listserv, there was no sign of it during the 90 minutes that I stood around (sometimes in a tree so that I could see over the reeds) but I managed to see some good birds anyway.
There were so many Yellow Warblers around, I reported 7 but there could have easily been more.

Yellow Warbler - Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson AZ
Again I saw a Cooper's Hawk in nearly the same tree as last time, near the Gazebo. But this one had no rings. And notice the furry mess at it's feet.
Cooper's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk - Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson AZ
And a brief flyover of a Prairie Falcon (which I thought was a Peregrine until I got home).

Prairie Falcon
Prairie Falcon - Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson AZ
I left Sweetwater Wetlands with no AMBI and had a quick lunch at Illegal Pete's in Tucson. I looked over the Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona guidebook and the Birdseye App on my phone to try and determine where on Mt. Lemmon I should concentrate my limited time up there. I decided on Rose Canyon Lake with stops at some lower picnic areas if I didn't have any luck there with Olive Warblers. There was also the added bonus of a potential life Buff-Breasted Flycatcher in the same area. But when I got to the turn-off to the lake, it was closed due to fire. I decided to continue up instead of down and stopped at Incinerator Ridge Road. I parked at the gate, as recommended by the guidebook, and started walking up. I shortly heard some Common Ravens making some low calls and then saw a few Yellow-Eyed Juncos along the road. And then a Steller's Jay flew by me and downslope. I ran into a couple from Connecticut who were birding. They mentioned seeing Olive Warblers at the top of the road and down a nearby trail. I continued on my way and ran into some Western Bluebirds with some very vibrant colors with some Pygmy Nuthatches nearby.
I found the trail at the top and kept on going. Shortly after I noticed a small bird fly into a pine tree above me and quickly got it in view with my (new) binoculars. It was a warbler with an yellow-to-orange head and breast, dark eye-line and white wing bars: OLIVE WARBLER! I've been hoping to see one of these birds from the time I lived in New Mexico. 

Olive Warbler
Olive Warbler - Mt. Lemmon, Pima Co Arizona
I turned and walked back down towards my care elated at finally ticking this bird (and getting my first lifer in what felt like forever). I passed back through the Western Bluebirds and was just about half-way down the road when some activity to my left got my attention. I noticed a few small birds that quickly became a mixed-flock working their way through the trees. I saw a Mountain Chickadee, Grace's Warbler, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, another Olive Warbler and a Painted Redstart, which was flying all around and displaying while it foraged.

Painted Redstart
Painted Redstart - Mt. Lemmon, Pima Co, Arizona
I tried to get some photos of the other birds, but they were too busy and the light was bad. But I heard some Brown Creepers and quickly spotted 2 of them working their way up some trees.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper - Mt. Lemmon, Pima Co Arizona
By the time that I made it back to my car, I had enough time for one more stop. Despite being fairly tired, I wanted to stop by Catalina State Park in nearby Oro Valley to try and hear some Elf Owls. I made it there just at dusk and parked at the trailhead for the birding trail. It was quite busy with people leaving but eventually I was the last person there along with a few cars. I didn't know if a gate was going to be closed trapping me in, but I thought that I would take my chances. 
It wasn't fully dark when I heard a deep "hoot-hoot-hoooooot" coming from the west. I scanned the tall Saguaros until I saw the culprit, a male Great-Horned Owl was calling away.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl - Catalina State Park, Pima Co Arizona
As it got darker I heard a higher-pitched and more rapid hooting from south of me. Going against my better urges, I headed off into the trees and followed a trail as the sound got louder. I eventually passed where it was coming from and turned around. Somehow I noticed a glint of eyes coming from a nearby cactus in the light of my headlamp. It was a tiny Elf Owl calling away. I got a bit closer, and using my headlamp, and maxing out the ISO of my camera, I managed to get a shot if the owl! Another lifer for the day and a bucket list bird for sure.

Elf Owl
Elf Owl - Catalina State Park, Pima Co Arizona
Despite dipping on that darn Bittern it was a great day. I managed to add 2 lifers and get an amazing hand-held shot of an Elf Owl. 

If you are ever going to be in Arizona and want someone to show you around, or just give some advice on where to go, feel free to contact me at

Thanks for making it this far,


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Beware the Owls of March...

     It's the middle of March and I've not posted in awhile. I had an accident up on Mt. Ord in February where I slid on a muddy, ash-filled slope and landed on my camera lens and broke it. I sent it out and $500 later it was repaired and looks to be as good as new.
     I finally had a chance to get out with the repaired lens and do some birding. I actually did not know where I was going to go. According to my Birdseye App, all of the birds in my area are already on my list. I never meant to be a lister, but because I tend to move around often, I really like to build my life list. Most of the ones that I need in Arizona are outside of Phoenix and I need more than a morning to go after them. But, there were still some. I've been trying to see Mountain Plover in the Santa Cruz Flats all winter. It's just at the end of their snowbird season, but I thought that I would try one more time for them. There was also a chance of seeing a Ruddy Ground Dove in the area too, so it was worth a trip if I could get either one of those.
     I got a late start on the day, but one of the first birds that I saw was an Osprey just out of my hometown of Gilbert on the Gila River Native American lands enjoying a fish's head.

Osprey - Gilbert, Arizona
     After arriving in the north part of the Santa Cruz Flats I was greeted by a large flocks of Lark Buntings. These guys were gathering together to make their trip north in the coming weeks. One of them was even getting into it's breeding plumage.

Lark Buntings
Lark Buntings - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
Just before the turn-off East towards the Evergreen Sod Farms I noticed a speckled bird fly across the road and land on a fence post, so I pulled over and went to get a better look. It was a surprise Sage Thrasher, also on it's way north. 

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
It was shortly joined by a second one and together they did some foraging along the roadside. I noticed a large, tan building behind me that had some birds flying around. I recognized some House Sparrows and a Say's Phoebe.

Say's Phoebe
Say's Phoebe - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona 
The building was clearly empty with no windows or doors and a large for-sale sign out front and no fence, so I decided to take a peek inside on a hunch. I looked up into the rafters and saw someone looking back at me.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
It was a Barn Owl! I've been trying to see one for years. I had a glimpse of one near Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico 5 or 6 years ago, but just as it flew out of a nest box and off into some trees. I couldn't believe it. And just then, it got even better, a second one flew next to the first.

Barn Owls
Barn Owls - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona

Barn Owls
Barn Owls - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
The owls ended up being the highlight of my day since I once again dipped on Mountain Plovers and Ruddy Ground Dove. But there is always next winter. 

The following day, Monday, I had a few minutes free and decided to check in on some other owls, there are Burrowing Owls which are year-round residents in a park near my house in Gilbert. They live in artificial burrows made from PVC pipes which are just along a concrete footpath and fairly used to people. I also wanted to ditch my teleconverter because I haven't been very happy with the quality of my photos and read that the aren't the greatest for shorter-focal length lenses (I just have a 300mm). I saw two Burrowing Owls in the few minutes that I had and along with some blooming wildflowers were very nice to see.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl - Zanjero Park, Gilbert Arizona

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl - Zanjero Park, Gilbert Arizona
My kids have just started 2 weeks of spring break. We had a Monday afternoon free and I wanted to show them some Great Horned Owls. I knew of a nest in Scottsdale, but not the exact location. Plus it is already hot here in Arizona. It's mid-March and already over 90°F, too hot for a hike if we didn't need one. But I also knew of another nest of GHOW at a Lowe's Home Improvement store, also in Gilbert. So we made a quick stop there and were rewarded with seeing three of them in the lawn and garden section.
The single young bird there was looking older than I was expecting, with many adult feathers poking out of it's baby-down and getting it's wings ready to fly.

Great-Horned Owl
Great-Horned Owl - Gilbert, Arizona

Great-Horned Owl
Great-Horned Owl - Gilbert, Arizona
Both parents were nearby watching everyone too.

Great-Horned Owl
Great-Horned Owl (Male) - Gilbert, Arizona

Great-Horned Owl
Great-Horned Owl (Female) - Gilbert, Arizona
I my kids loved seeing them. I got to show them some pellets on the ground below them we got to see some tiny bones. My parents flew in to visit us and I took my mom by today to see them too (and to get some keys made). What a great urban birding experience.

Great-Horned Owl
Great-Horned Owl - Gilbert, Arizona
Hopefully my owl-luck continues and I get to see some Elf Owls this spring, they are just now arriving back to Arizona.

Thanks for making it this far,