Monday, March 21, 2016

California Dreaming: Bolsa Chica Wetlands

     My family took a little holiday to California to attend a wedding.  Living in the next state over, we decided to drive and visit Joshua Tree National Park and spend a few extra days in Los Angeles around the wedding. It was our first time at Joshua Tree and it was a beautiful place. We stayed the night at Twentynine Palms in a hotel, but we plan on going back to camp soon.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park - California
    I wasn't really concentrating on birds, but I did see some Western Scrub Jays and loads of lizards on the rocks.

     Once in LA I got the chance to meet my friend Brent Hall, a brilliant photographer who moved to LA from Albuquerque. Check out his website, he does amazing work. We went to Huntington Beach CA and visited the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.  This is a salt water marsh located on the other side of a road from a busy beach. It's a beautiful place and much larger than I thought it would be.  My target birds for this area were Reddish Egrets and the endangered Ridgeway's Rail, along with whatever else we could see.  
     We left the car-park and walked across a long, wooden, boardwalk further into the wetlands.  One of the first birds that we saw was a Pied-Billed Grebe diving for food.

Pied-Billed Grebe
Pied-Billed Grebe - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Brent was nice enough to loan me a couple of his lenses on this walk.  The first was a Canon 100mm f/2.8 with a teleconverter, which is how I shot the Gebe photo above.  But then he offered to let me try his new Canon 100-400mm version 2. It's the lens that I've been wanting, talk about a treat.
A bit further along were some shorebirds, Marbled Godwits and lifers for me.

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Along with the Godwits were a few Surf Scoters, both males and females.

Surf Scoter
Surf Scoter - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
They weren't the only fancy ducks about, a Red-Breasted Merganser was foraging along one of the waterways in the area.

Common Merganser
Red-Breasted Merganser - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Ruddy Ducks seemed to be everywhere, I've seen nice size groupings of them here in Arizona and quite a few were around in California.  But the ones in Arizona didn't seem to have such nice blue bills yet.

Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
The air was busy too.  There were quite a few gulls flying around, but this Forster's Tern fly by nice and low for us.

Forster's Tern
Forster's Tern - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
A Northern Osprey also flew by, it was the only raptor that we saw on our walk, but always nice to see.

Northern Osprey
Northern Osprey - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
All of those birds were nice, but it wasn't the one that I was hoping for.  That was a Reddish Egret.  We had seen one towards the beginning of our trip, but it was fairly far away and we didn't get any good photos.  But as luck would have it, we came upon another one.  

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret - Bolsa Chica Wetlands

What a beautiful bird, much nicer than it's cousins the Great Blue and Grey Herons in my opinion. Brent and I watched it hunt around the marsh for a bit, and then fight a bit with a short squall that came through, bringing a bit of wind and higher waves.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret - Bolsa Chica Wetlands 
It was time for us to head back, I had a rehearsal dinner to attend.  As we made our way back we got some good looks at a Willet prowling around.

Willet - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
And I took the time to watch this clever Snowy Egret hunting fish.

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
It staked out a stream between two ponds in the marsh and was snapping up some small fish as they passed through.

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret and Prey - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
If Bolsa Chica Wetlands are known for one bird, it would be the endangered Ridgeway's Rail. Brent and I met a pair of Fish and Wildlife officers who were out doing a census on them, but they said that they hadn't seen any yet that day.  We resigned ourselves to dipping on them as we went to cross the boardwalk to the carpark. But a couple of out-of-town birders, who we had met earlier, told us to be quiet because there was a Rail just below them!  Brent and I crept up so as not to disturb it's calling.
Ridgeway's Rail
Male Ridgeway's Rail - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
As it would happen, the bird couldn't care less who was watching it. It was just looking for it's mate. These birds were recently split from Clapper Rails due to some differences and no habitat over-lap.  From what I understand, they prefer salt and brackish water and Clapper Rails do not.
I was able to record a bit of the calling on my phone.

Just as we were about to move on, the simple calling turned into a cacophony, a female had arrived and some mating was taking place just below us. 

Ridgeway's Rails
Ridgeway's Rails - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Afterwards they quickly went their separate ways with the female moving on to forage in the marsh.

Ridgeway's Rail
Female Ridgeway's Rail - Bolsa Chica Wetlands
What an amazing chance to get such great looks at some normally hard-to-see birds, and endangered ones at that.  It's sobering to think that these birds may not be around for my grandkids to see.

Ridgeway's Rail
Ridgeway's Rail - Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Hopefully I'll update this blog more often, especially after I get a new lens. The Hummingbird photos that I am missing from my own garden is depressing. I'll have another short post from California to follow this one.  

Thank you for making it this far,


Thursday, December 31, 2015


Howdy from the last day of 2015!  I'm writing this from my parent's house in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, back in the USA. My family and I are currently in the middle of our move from Ireland to Arizona, so I've been very busy and have not done much birding.  But the good news is that I've finally bought myself a new DSLR, a Canon 7d Mkii, which is awesome.  I don't have a birding lens yet, but that will be remedied as soon as possible.

I really need to post some photos from my last time in Ireland, but unfortunately, I didn't get out as much as I wanted to, and the weather was plain shite most of the time.

But I'm looking forward to getting this thing kicked into high gear in 2016 with a new look and some quality photos.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

Eastern European Trip Day 1: Arrival and White Storks

     I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a week-long birding trip to Central Europe with Birdwatch Ireland.  It was my first long-birding trip, and the longest time that I would be away from my kids since my daughter was born over five years ago.  Myself and 34 other birders would spend 6 hot, sunny days looking for birds in Austria, Hungary and Slovakia from our base in Illmitz.  The town is situated within Austria's only steppe nationalpark, Neusiedler See.  The area was composed of a very large lake, extensive reed beds surrounding the lake, various smaller, brackish ponds and extensive meadows and farmland.  Which put together offered the potential for a variety of bird species to see.
     We left Ireland early Tuesday morning June 2nd and landed in Vienna just before lunch.  We met our Austrian guide, Leander Khil at the airport and boarded our very large, white motorcoach.  Our first stop was to a local cafe in Fischamend for lunch, and my first lifer tick of the trip, a Black Stork circling overhead.

Black Stork
Black Stork - Austria
     We picked up some other common European species: Common Swifts, Common House-Martins, Carrion Crows, House Sparrows and White Storks sitting atop large, rooftop nests.
     Our second stop was a wooded area near Marchegg, just a few hundred meters from Slovakia, and along the March River.  This area is special because it's the home of the last tree-nesting White Stork colony in Europe. They've moved onto houses everywhere else.  But seeing their nests on trees near an old castle really makes you feel like you are in Europe.

White Storks
White Stork Nest - Marchegg, Austria
   Some of the trees held multiple nests, around 50 in all throughout the surrounding forest.

White Stork Nests
White Stork nests - Marchegg, Austria
This tree had 3 levels of nests in it.

White Stork
White Storks - Marchegg, Austria
And if you look closely to the one in the bottom-most nest, you will see that it never good to be on the bottom of the pecking order.

White Stork
White Stork - Marchegg, Austria
     It wasn't just Storks in the area.  I picked up my second lifers of the trip, Collared Flycatcher and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, 36 species in total.  Unfortunately, we wouldn't see Collared Flycatchers again, and I never got a good photo of one.  In addition to the birds, there were quite a few other animals about.  Edible Frogs (yes, that's their name) were in the water all around us.

Edible Frog
Edible Frog - Marchegg, Austria
     After reaching the town of Illmitz and checking into our home for the next week, we had a nice dinner and started getting to know one another a bit better.  But as the day was ending, I noticed my neighbors across the way, a White Stork family.

White Stork
White Stork - Illmitz, Austria

   I'll be making each day it's own post since we would concentrate on a particular area, and thus get some different birds each day.  


(I have changed the posting dates of these posts so that they are shown with day 1 first, etc, so that you can read them in order)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Eastern European Trip Day 2: Reed Beds, Salt Ponds and Hoopoes

    I wrote about the first day of my recent trip to Austria in the previous post, which you can find here.
    The second day would take us to various salt ponds and reed-beds in the Nuesiedler See Nationalpark, which surrounded Illmitz, Austria, the town in which we were staying.  In the morning we boarded our White-Whale of a motor coach and went to visit two places with interesting names:  Oberstinkersee, or the "big stinky lake", and nearby Hölle, or "hell".   The first was a rather large pond with lots of waterfowl present.  We would see Common and Red-Crested Pochards, Mallards, Great Egrets, Mute Swans, Northern Shovelers, Garganey and Little Egrets.  But a bird that caused lots of excitement for our local guide, Leander Kihl, was a Fieldfare.  This Fieldfare was seen taking food towards a nest, and made this only the second record of nesting in the region.

Fieldfare - Oberstinkersee, Austria
     While on our way to get some very good looks at a Greater Reed-Warbler from one of the multiple hides and observation platforms in the area, someone noticed an odd living arrangement in a rather large birdhouse.

Eurasian Kestrel Chick
Eurasian Kestrel Chick and Sparrows - Oberstinkersee, Austria
     If you look closely, you can see a Kestrel chick peaking out of the one door and Tree Sparrows just around the corner. Some of us speculated that maybe the sparrows were breeding Kestrels that would think of sparrows as family and thus leave them alone.
     One of the lifer ticks for me on the second day would become a common bird seen throughout the week, Red-Backed Shrikes.  We would see them singularly or in pairs pretty much everywhere else that we visited for the remainder of the week.

Red-Backed Shrike
Red-Backed Shrike - Oberstinkersee, Austria
     We left the Oberstinkersee and continued on just a short distance to a section of the reed beds which surround the Nuesiedler See.  The motor coach dropped us at a large tower and we walked north along a road with fields and trees to our right and the reeds to our left.  We saw dozens and dozens of Red-Crested Pochards and a hundred-odd Graylag Geese in the middle of their molt.  I would pick up a lifer Nightengale singing away in a thick piece of brush, while hearing a few others.  I also got my first glimpse of Bearded Reedlings out in the reeds, but no good photos.  We ended our walk with a view of the lake and some local horses who were helping to control the grasses.

Nuesiedler See - Illmitz, Austria
     After a lunch stop back at the Hotel Post in Illmitz, we went West towards more reeds and a walk to a bit of water where we should be able to see Pygmy Cormorants.  As I mentioned before, it was very hot, nearly 35°C that afternoon and the walk was 2.5km along an exposed, dirt road. It really made me home-sick for New Mexico.  The first birds that we saw off of the bus was another Red-Backed Shrike hunting from some kind of pole.  We would see Marsh Harriers, Storks, Spoonbills, Tree Sparrows and some Eurasian Kestrels along the way.  And more than once we would hear the booming calls of Bitterns from dense reeds, but never saw any.
     At the end of the road was a house and an observation tower known as Sandeck. There were some other photographers already there and it seemed to be a popular spot.  One of the reasons is that this area is the home of a rare breed of white donkeys, some of the last ones in Austria.

White Donkies
Austrian White-Donkeys - Illmitz, Austria
However, opposite of the donkeys was a flurry of activity.  Lots of ducks and Graylag geese were on the water and the surrounding wetlands.  We saw Pintails, Mallards, Common and Red-Crested Pochards, Gadwalls, Garganey, Shelducks and even some Northern Shovelers. There were also Mute Swans, Great Egrets and Little Egrets present too.  And flying far out and back and forth were some Pygmy Cormorants.  Everything of interest was too far for my camera, but the scene was impressive.

Scene from Sanddeck - Nuesiedler See, Austria
    After we had our fill of the waterfowl, we were told to look into one of the trees behind us.  Up on a nest was a Long-Eared Owl.

Long-Eared Owl on nest
Long-Eared Owl - Nuesiedler See, Austria
  But the reason that the other photographers were around was because of a different nest.  There were Hoopoes nesting in the area.  We would watch the adults fly into trees and then fly off.  But the one was up in the roof of a building along the dirt road which we had just walked down.  Once we had it in our scopes it was easy to see two young Hoopoes looking for their next food delivery.

Hoopoe chicks
Hoopoe chick - Nuesiedler See, Austria
Hoopoe chicks
Hoopoe Chicks - Nuesiedler See, Austria
     On the long, hot walk back to the bus we got some good looks at a Turtle Dove in a tree and then a (Black-Crowned) Night Heron flew over towards the lake proper.  And just as we arrived back at the Seegasse we saw more Hoopoe adults carrying food back along the road.  We figured that they were the adults from the nest that we had seen, but when we watched them quickly flying back going the other way we, figured that there were 2 nests in the area.
     The end of the second day saw me get a quite a few lifer ticks, 17 in all and nearly half of the ones that I would see during the week.  But I would get better looks at most of those later in the week, and better photos too. Day three would be taking us East towards Hungary looking for Great Bustards and Bee-Eaters. 



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Eastern European Trip Day 3: Great Bustards, Hungary and a Harrier

     This is the third post about my recent trip to Austria, Hungary and Slovakia with Birdwatch Ireland. You can find my previous posts on day 1 here, and day 2 here.
     The third day's goals were Great Bustards in the morning and then our visit to Hungary. We left our base at the Post Hotel Illmitz and traveled East towards Hungary.  The town of Illmitz is known for it's wine making and is surrounded on all sides by vineyards.  But as we traveled East we left the grape vines behind for fields of different crops.  Although I had seen Great Bustards in Portugal, I was looking forward to seeing them again.  Leander. our Austrian guide, told us that due to really wet and cold weather the previous week, the Bustard nests were lost.  So there was a chance that we could see males strutting in attempt at a second brood.
   Someone spotted two Great Bustards out in a cleared field, which isn't hard, they are the world's heaviest flying bird,

Great Bustard
Great Bustard - Burgenland, Austria
The region had hides and observation towers everywhere.  The Nationalpark Nuesiedlersee is a popular birding destination.  Here's some of the group and our faithful motor coach watching the Great Bustards.

Irish Birders
Irish Birders - Burgenland, Austria
     It turned out that the two Bustards were both females, so no displays that morning.  But the group got to hear a Corncrake calling from some brush, although we never saw it while we were watching.  We also saw a pair of Imperial Eagles soaring off in the far distance.  Our guides pointed out the differences in wing-shape and the golden color of their heads.  But they were very far off. We did get good looks at Marsh-Harriers though, which were becoming very common.
     Our next stop was a few miles further East on the border between Austria and Hungary at the Andau Bridge.  The bridge was the scene of a mass exodus of refugees during the soviet crack-down of 1956.  When the Iron Curtain was raised all of the border crossings were closed.  But a small bridge was forgotten and 70,000 Hungarian refugees used it to escape to the West until it was destroyed by the Soviet military.  Today the recently restored bridge is a peaceful spot and the road to Andau is lined with a series of sculptures commemorating the event.

Andau Bridge
View from Andau Bridge, Austria to the right, Hungary to the left

Old Border
Old border fence - Andau Bridge, Austria
Roadside Monument
Roadside Sculpture - Andau Bridge, Austria
There were still plenty of birds to be seen, like this Red-Backed Shrike.
Red-Backed Shrike
Red-Backed Shrike - Andau Bridge, Austria
This Female Golden Oriole would be the only one that actually landed within sight during out trip.
Golden Oriole, female
Golden Oriole - Andau Bridge, Austria
And the group's first look at a Honey Buzzard soaring overhead.
Honey Buzzard
Honey Buzzard - Andau Bridge, Austria
At the bridge the group also saw some Yellow-Legged Gulls, Reed Warbler, Greater Reed Warbler, Penduline Tits, Turtle Dove and watched a Common Whitethroat visit it's nest.
     After we were done at the bridge the group headed back towards Illmitz and lunch.  But we had one more stop on the way back.  The bus stopped near the location of an older Imperial Eagle's nest for a short visit to see if we could find any more Great Bustards.  We were giving the option of walking down the road for a bit and having the bus pick us up.  I ended up being the only one to take this offer and it would pay off.  I was walking along the road when I saw a big bird flying over a field to my right. I saw a raptor's shape and a white-band on the base of the tail.  I immediately thought that it was a Northern (Hen) Harrier.  But the narrow wings belonged to a Montagu's Harrier! A lifer tick for me, and the only one to be seen by the group all week.

Montagu's Harrier
Montagu's Harrier - Burgenland, Austria
Montagu's Harrier
Montagu's Harrier - Burgenland, Austria
     After lunch we set off to Hungary again to visit a large Bee-Eater colony. This time we would drive the bus over the border instead of walking.  We wound through some villages and then forestland until we reached a little woodland cottage where the bus let everyone off.

Hungarian House
Woodland Cottage - Csorna, Hungary
Before entering the forest on our walk to the Bee-Eater Colony, we looked out over a large field for possible Eagles, but we just saw one of the many Common Buzzards seen during the week.

Common Buzzard
Common Buzzard - Csorna, Hungary
     During the walk to the sand dunes most of the group stopped to look for a River Warbler heard calling and I happened to look up and spot a lifer Hobby flying overhead.  Most of the group got to see it too before it quickly exited the area.  We continued on a kilometer or so until we found ourselves at the edge of a clearing.  Wetland and more reed-beds could be seen in the distance and the call of Bee-Eaters were everywhere, and so were they.

Eurasian Bee-Eater
European Bee-Eater - Csorna, Hungary
A colony of 100-200 pairs were nesting in some exposed sand pits that were below ground level from where we were standing. Lucky for us another observation tower was nearby that gave us a look into where the nest holes were.  Bee-Eaters dig burrows similar to a Kingfisher, but they aren't as shy.

Bee-Eater Nests
Bee-Eater nest holes - Csorna, Hungary
The Bee-Eaters were flying all around us and perched singularly, but mostly in pairs.

Eurasian Bee-Eaters
European Bee-Eaters - Csorna, Hungary
There were quite a collection of other birds about too.  For as quick as I was to spot the Hobby on the walk in, I missed the only Squacco Heron seen during the week as it flew off from some reeds.  But we saw Purple Herons, Night Herons, Great and Little Egrets, Whiskered Terns and even some Pygmy Cormorants were present.

Pygmy Cormorants
Pygmy Cormorants - Csorna, Hungary
     Nothing new was spotted on the way back to the bus, or back to the hotel.  It was the end of another long, hot day.  Which would describe every day on the trip.  Rewarding would also work.

     Day 4 will take us to salt lakes and Ziesels, but that is for the next post.