A Vagrant is a Hard Thing to Pass Up

This past week, a very interesting bird was found. The first state record for Maryland of sharp-tailed sandpiper (ABA Code 3) was discovered just south of Baltimore and about a 4 hour drive from Pittsburgh. I went back and forth about whether or not to chase it for a long time, weighing my options. There were a lot of cons: I needed to start packing to move apartments, I couldn’t find someone to carpool with, I had an appointment I couldn’t get out of in the morning, and I was nervous about driving 4 hours for a bird having just dipped the week before on the Pennsylvania white-winged tern (also 4 hours away). However, two massive pros outweighed all of it:

  1. It was a sharp-tailed sandpiper.
  2. There were a BUNCH of other shorebirds being seen at the same spot, including 8 Hudsonian godwits, a needed lifer for me.

So I went. And it was well worth it.

The place was absolutely swarming with shorebirds. It was almost overwhelming the number of birds present. The location is a large pond next to the Chesapeake Bay. The water is rather shallow and for whatever reason a huge number of shorebirds have congregated there this season. The star of the show was being seen when I arrived and I was able to get great looks at the sharp-tailed sandpiper.



Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

The bird stood out sharply (no pun intended) as the darkest bird in the flock and at one point foraged next two a couple of pectoral sandpipers, nicely showing the key ID points between the two similar species.

Fascinatingly, the sharp-tails that show up on the east coast are thought to be reverse migrants. This means essentially that instead of flying across North America from the Bering Sea as you might intuitively think would be the route a Siberian bird might take, they fly from their breeding grounds in Siberia the opposite direction of their wintering grounds in Australasia. This route takes them across the Arctic Circle and down into the eastern US. Quite a trip!

The eBird data below shows scattered reports of sharp-tails from the ABA Area away from the west coast (west coast birds are likely off course migrants from the normal route) and illustrates the vagrancy patterns of these reverse migrants.

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eBird Range Map of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

In addition to the sharp-tailed, the Hudsonian godwits were also present when I arrived. Not only was this a very long overdue lifer for me, but they were also the final world godwit species I needed after seeing black-tailed in Europe and a vagrant bar-tailed in California.


A Godwit Squad

A couple merrily spinning Wilson’s phalaropes rounded out the trio of shorebird rarities present at the location, since sadly the previous day’s red-necked phalaropes were nowhere to be found.

In addition to these birds, a Baird’s sandpiper put in a brief appearance and a single western sandpiper foraged no more than 15 feet from the onlookers. However, the sheer number of shorebirds was a spectacle in and of itself. Over 20 stilt sandpipers foraged in the lagoon with 5-6 white-rumps. These numbers are even more amazing when you consider that even one of these birds is a good find just 4 hours away in western Pennsylvania. A couple short-billed dowitcher, hordes of yellowlegs, swarms of peeps, and a few scattered pectorals completed the picture.


Stilt Sandpiper

The birds were confiding too, most highlighted by the flocks of peeps foraging for insects on the berm overlooking the pond. Large groups of semipalamted and least sandpipers were even coming as close as a couple feet from the adoring crowds photographing them. A couple of times I found my camera unable to focus on the scurrying pipers, a rare problem to have when photographing shorebirds.



Least Sandpipers

There had also been a yellow-headed blackbird seen in the area over the past couple a days (a product of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect). However, the flock of blackbirds it was bumming around with had yet to put in an appearance. This turned out not to be a problem as some expert scoping by a birder present revealed a flash of yellow in amongst some blackbirds way on the other side of the lagoon.

With all the rarities in the bag and my brain full and my eyes hurting from shorebird observation, I loaded up the car and headed back towards Pittsburgh.

However, this wasn’t without a quick stop as it was going dark at Somerset Lake in Somerset County, Pennsylvania where spotted and solitary sandpipers and a continuing American golden-plover nailed me my 14th, 15th, and 16th shorebird species of the day. Quite a success!

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Shorebirds in the Calm Before the Migrant Storm

This week was that unfortunate time of year when basically every breeding passerine species is hunkered down and impossible to find and its too early for any migrants to speak of. Basically the only good birds around are shorebirds, and I live in a famously shorebird lacking area. Consequently, I have to drive long distances to get any decent birding.

This week I picked Conneaut, Ohio as my spot to head for the shorebirds I never get closer to home. This location on the shore of Lake Erie is an excellent vantage point for shorebird observation with birds often allowing very close approach and a great potential for rarities.

Since my last visit, an observation tower on the sand spit had been installed and it was here that I set up and waited the arrival of shorebirds. It wasn’t an incredible day by any means but shorebirds came in waves, seemingly dropping in out of nowhere.

The first flock was mostly semipalmated sandpipers with a single Baird’s mixed in. When these flew off, they were quickly replaced by a flock of least sandpipers and another crisp Baird’s. This flock was much more confiding than the other one, giving great photographic opportunities as they fed along the beach. Their plumage was immaculate (the perks of birding this early in the season!) with one least in particular sporting bright rufous plumage!


Brightly Plumaged Least Sandpiper

Waiting for new shorebird turnover was hardly boring either. A Bonaparte’s gull flew by at one point, bald eagles scaring gulls were entertaining to watch, a couple yellowlegs (both species) and two semipalmated plovers moved around the beach all morning, and trying to turn a double-crested cormorant into a neotropic is always a fun diversion.


Semiaplamted Plover

The shorebird activity seemed to have mostly burned off by afternoon however and, except for a flyby sanderling, nothing much more of note was seen and I eventually headed back to Pittsburgh. August had temporarily satiated my burning desire for birds and successfully braced me oncoming onslaught of migrants.

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An Important Announcement!

Work on this blog has, unfortunately, been temporarily halted with the recent death of my computer. I am still working on getting set up again with photos, but should be able to write again as normal in a couple days. However, in the meantime, I have an announcement. As a graduated from high school this June, I am leaving my home state of Pennsylvania. Most of my peers are headed immediately to college, but I am instead off on a gap year!

In early October, I will be moving to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina!! I love Sarajevo and Bosnia and am beyond excited to be able to call it home for a year. I will be using it as a base from which to travel in the Balkans, Middle East, and Caucasus. Since I will be utilising public transport, birding won’t always be possible, but I should have opportunities to do a good bit of it (in particular, by making use of local birders). I am particularly excited to go birding in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and of course Bosnia!

I very much look forwards to updating this blog with my birding during my travels! Additionally, the gap year more generally can be followed on Instagram: @AidanJPlace.


The Famous Mostar Bridge, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Panama Preview

I just returned from a two week whirlwind birding tour of Panama over spring break. As it was my first time doing a concerted birding trip to Central America, I got a whole mess of lifers. In lieu of a complete retelling, which will be forthcoming, here’s a brief photographic preview.


Resplendent Quetzal


Orange-bellied Trogon


Barred Antshrike


White-necked Jacobin

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Ontario Winter Roadtrip 2017

Following the great success of a young birder roadtrip to Michigan over the summer, I was chomping at the bit to organize another young birder trip. The opportunity presented itself when fellow Pittsburgh young birder Jack Chaillet and I were both free over President’s Day weekend. My nemesis bird, black-backed woodpecker, sat tantalizingly just 7 hours north in Canada’s boreal forest so we set our sights for the Great White North.

As soon as I got off school on Wednesday, we loaded the car and set out. We made a brief stop in northern PA for a Ross’s goose which we dipped upon, but the thought of snow and winter finches drove us ever northwards and we ended up eventually in Amherst, New York where we stayed the night.

The next morning the real birding began. We pulled into Goat Island in Niagara rearing to go and with one target in mind: gulls. A quick drive around the island showed that one side in particular, around the Three Sisters Islands, had a large concentration. We parked the car and commenced scanning. Quickly we picked up a fair number of lesser black-backed gulls with a few Iceland’s and a single glaucous mixed in with the ubiquitous ring-billed and herring. However, the most exciting find was a single Thayer’s gull (with a second Thayer’s candidate)! A lifer for both of us! Perhaps more exciting for Jack who was becoming increasingly obsessed with boosting the trip list, a group of wigeon wandered by, a species we were worried about missing during the trip.


Thayer’s Gull Candidate


Lesser Black-backed Gull

Electrified by the white-winged wonders around us, but with a number of other targets to get that day, we headed for the border and crossed into Canada.

Our first stop across the border was in Burlington at the Burlington Shipping Canal. This is a spot I’ve stopped at during some early trips to Ontario and has proven to be a reliable spot for king eider. However, those large sea ducks hadn’t been reported for a while and we worried that they were no longer there. A couple hours of searching in fact proved us right about the eiders, but the stop was more than worth it anyway, if only because of the long-tailed ducks. These elegant sea ducks congregate in huge numbers at the canal and we were afforded brilliant looks.



Long-tailed Ducks

By this point it was getting late enough in the day that we were getting anxious to be moving along, so we set our GPS due north and started driving.

However, we couldn’t resist one more birding stop for the day, this time at a spot for snowy owl. Of the number of locales in the area holding snowy owls, our essentially random choice of one proved to have been unknowingly good, for we had two of the majestic arctic birds perched just across the road from one another. A small flock (flurry?) of snow buntings was an added bonus.


Snow Buntings


Snowy Owl

That night we stayed in Huntsville, the town adjacent to the famous Algonquin Provincial Park. Our plan was to bird in the park for the next two days, aiming on snagging boreal specialties, and of course black-backed woodpecker. The woodpecker is a bird that had evaded me far too many times before. I had looked for them with no success twice in Ontario, once in Minnesota, and once in Michigan. Every time had involved a huge number of hours spent in the field desperately stalking a bird that would never appear. The most recent attempt, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was particularly frustrating as I and a couple other young birders spent 5 fruitless hours along one road being slowly devoured by horse flies and pursuing every woodpecker drum we encountered, going crazier and crazier with every hairy or sapsucker that fooled us. Understandably, I did not plan on leaving Ontario this time without my much desired nemesis.

The first day netted us some incredible birding. White-winged and red crossbills abounded and we were able to net common redpoll and pine grosbeaks, both uncommon species this year. The flock of up to 100 evening grosbeaks at the visitor center feeder swept the finch for us and incredible looks at boreal chickadee gave us one of our top targets. The unseasonably warm weather which made the birding much easier and more comfortable than it usually is in Algonquin in February was an added (although rather ominous when climate change is kept in mind) bonus.



Boreal Chickadee


Pine Grosbeak at First Light



White-winged Crossbill


Red Squirrel


Grey Jay

However, throughout the day, black-backed woodpecker remained elusive, with only the occasional peeled tree hinting at their presence. We went to sleep that night early, planning on awaking early to be out at a bog preferred by the woodpecker at first light. I don’t know what Jack was thinking but I personally planned on searching exclusively for the woodpecker for as long as it took.

We arrived at the bog while the morning was still crisp and still. White-winged crossbills sputtered and chipped in small flocks overhead, ravens croaked occasionally, and a surprise American crow called. However, the main thrill came when we reached the prime stretch of bog and heard, distantly, the drum of a black-backed woodpecker. I froze as the adrenaline began to course, but the bird was too distant to be of much use. As I strained my ears to hear it again, another sound caught my ear. The distinctive, hollow “pik” of a black-backed, much, much closer this time. Just off the road in fact. We walked as fast as we could on the slick, icy road over to where it had called. Sure enough, the woodpecker appeared as if on cue, flying to land on a nearby tree! Success! Nemesis conquered! The adrenaline was by this point through the roof and I excitedly followed the bird as it foraged around the bog until, ultimately, it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.


Black-backed Woodpecker!!

We happily returned to the car, overjoyed with what we had seen. We had no idea that our day would end up getting even better.

We decided to stop at the visitor center to check the sightings board before going birding again and saw, much to our excitement, that there had been two spruce grouse reported from Spruce Bog not 15 minutes before. We suspected that they had moved on but figured better safe than sorry, so headed out. We could not have been more wrong. When we arrived at the trail, a crowd of maybe 20 photographers were all clustered around one side of the trail, shutters clicked rapidly. We walked over and sure enough, there were two spruce grouse, not more than five feet off the trail!



Spruce Grouse

Our good luck wasn’t over as we were later even able to find a stakeout American marten, a much desired mammal for both of us. These arboreal mustelids often attend garbage cans around campsites in the park and one in particular was extremely reliable around Mew Lake.



American Marten

Algonquin Park had come through for me once again! This park has never failed to disappoint me and its magnificent scenery, winter stillness, logistic ease of birding, and fantastic wildlife have made it a favourite place of mine to bird. This trip cemented that impression even more; how can you complain about getting a nemesis?

That evening, having gotten all our targets plus some in the park, we left the beautiful boreal forest behind and headed for Ottawa for our last day of birding.

In Ottawa we met up with an old young birder friend of mine, Will von Herff and turned the reigns of the itinerary over to his local knowledge. He brought us first to a location hosting a great grey owl. This northern owl staged a huge irruption into southern Canada this winter and this was one of the many spots in the area from which they were being seen. It turned out to be a reliable spot too, as we picked up the owl within literally 30 seconds of arrival.


A Majestic Owl next to a Less Majestic Telephone Pole


Our next stop was for a potential lifer for me, only my third of the trip, grey partridge. Normally scarce and hard to find around Ottawa, a covey had been hanging around a housing development west of the city. Much as with the owl, they turned out to be extremely reliable and the covey was found by Jack, taking shelter in the lee of a house, within 10 minutes.


Grey Partridges

With all three of my lifer targets for the trip (Thayer’s gull, black-backed woodpecker, and grey partridge) in the bag, I was in a rather good mood as we moved to the next spot, a waterfowling location along the Ottawa River. There we picked up our two targets, Barrow’s goldeneye and a continuing harlequin duck (both lifers for Jack) and were able to enjoy good looks at the ubiquitous common goldeneye.


Barrow’s Goldeneye


Harlequin Duck

It was particularly nice to get good looks at the Barrow’s as Ottawa is a good spot to get direct comparison to common goldeneye. The difference in head shape in particular really stands out in direct comparison!

A flock of Bohemian waxwings just over the border in Quebec got us the last of our targets, all before noon(!), and we were able to spend the rest of the day relaxing and just having fun birding around, a nice reprieve after a few hectic days.


Snowshoe Hare

The next day we said goodbye to Will and then to Canada in quick succession as we crossed back into the US at the magnificently beautiful Thousand Island Crossing and headed back to Pittsburgh.

In the course of 5 days we had cleaned up Ontario, sweeping all our targets except king eider, and seeing some fantastic birds! Another successful birding trip down.

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Vagrants for Days…

The past week has been pretty crazy (and exhausting) bird wise. It all started last Sunday when I was able to chase a slaty-backed gull that had been found a few days prior at Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie. As it was a second record for the state and would be a lifer for me, I was eager to find it.

I arrived just after dawn and had hopes that the bird would be found promptly by the large group of birders present. However, it was not to be and the roosting gulls began to disperse with no sign of the gull. Consequently, I was destined to spend the next 8 hours searching the whole park for the gull, a task made extremely difficult by the fact that, due to a tragic string of misfortunes, I had no scope with me.

Happily, in those many gullless hours, I was able to see a whole array of other interesting birds to keep me occupied and away from despair in the freezing temperatures.


Common Goldeneye. Honestly, any day that you get to see and hear 100s of goldeneye is a good one in my book.



American Tree Sparrow


Common Redpoll, a nice bird for PA.

Of course, there were loads of gulls as well; namely hordes of great black-backed, a scattering of lessers, and a single Iceland; the latter being my first of year.


Iceland Gull


Lesser Black-backed Gull

Eventually, as it was very close to going dark, after 10 hours of searching, a group of birders found the gull. It was ridiculously distant, but through a scope the views weren’t bad at all. And of course it’s pretty hard to complain with a bird as cool as this one.


Slaty-backed Gull!!

I thought that was going to be the end of my rare bird chasing for a while. I was proven wrong pretty quickly however when news of an absolutely insane bird got out. The bird in question was a black-backed oriole in Berks County, a first record for the ABA if accepted. There is a good bit of mystery surrounding the origin of this bird, which is traditionally bound to central Mexico, but that is neither here nor there for this blog post so I’ll just leave it at that.

Of course, despite my being rather tired after a long week and having looming flu symptoms, I couldn’t not chase this bird, so I set out Sunday morning at five with a couple other young birders.

The chase itself doesn’t make too good of a story: we drove four hours plus some birding stops, arrived at the house hosting the oriole, waited 15 minutes until the bird showed, freaked out with excitement, photographed, freaked out some more, and just generally basked in its glory. I mean… it’s a freaking black-backed oriole in Pennsylvania. Who wouldn’t get excited?



Black-backed Oriole

Unfortunately, my flu got really bad as we were leaving the oriole spot so we had to cancel our planned birding stops for the afternoon and retreat back to Pittsburgh, whereupon I promptly fell asleep and haven’t gotten out of bed in two days. Did chasing the oriole make this horrific flu strain worse? Probably. Was it worth it? Totally.

Getting a second state record and a first ABA record in a 7 day span, pushing my ABA list to 604, is really not bad at all. Frankly, it’s been a pretty good week.

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Crossbills in Pennsylvania!

Nomadic winter finches are always fun. Their wandering habits, often beautiful colours, and northern allure make them a huge draw for birders. Aside from the usual siskins and purple finches, winter finches are usually almost entirely lacking from Pennsyvlania which makes them even more appealing to birders when they do show up. The last big irruption of finches into the state was the winter of 2012-2013 when both crossbills en mass and smaller numbers of evening grosbeaks and common redpolls covered the state. Since that winter however, reports have been few and far between. However, a couple weeks ago, a flock of red crossbills were found foraging at the relatively unknown Trough Creek State Park in Huntington County, Pennsylvania. Naturally, this drew a large number of birders and one Sunday I couldn’t help but give chase.

Gathering a group of young birders from Pittsburgh consisting of CMU student Sameer Apte and UChicago student back on break Jack Chaillet, I headed east towards the mountains and the crossbills they coveted. We got lost a few times in a couple different places but eventually did arrive in Huntington County. However, before we even got to the crossbill spot, we couldn’t resist stopping on a bridge crossing Raystown Lake (which Jack informed me was the largest lake entirely in Pennsylvania). Below and around the bridge was pretty much the only area of open water of the entire lake and consequently it held a solid group of common mergansers, 88 in all. However, even such a large number of mergs couldn’t keep us occupied for long, as the thought of finches drove us further down the road.

Arriving at the crossbill spot, we got sidetracked once again, this time by a huge concentration of rather friendly red-breasted nuthatches tooting away happily. Trough Creek seemed to be a place of avian abundance as we quickly tallied about 15 nuthatches and large flocks of blue jays and slate-coloured juncos passed through, with single yellow-bellied sapsucker and brown creeper to boot. The red-breasted nuthatches in particular drew our attention as a species not commonly seen in Allegheny County. Red-breasted is the far superior nuthatch to white-breasted we all quickly decided.


Red-breasted Nuthatch

Making life easier for us, we ended up not even needing to look for the crossbills as we heard some flight calls coming overhead while still admiring the nuthatches. Soon we spotted two birds in the tops of some spruces. However, these quickly flew off. A bit of wandering and birding later and a flock of about 20 descended from the heavens upon the spruce cones. Over the next half hour we watched the flock move from tree to tree cracking open cones for the seeds inside.



Unusual red crossbill foraging behavior — they were creeping along like nuthatches and eating something along the tree limb


Red Crossbill

Better yet I was able to get some recordings of the birds calling to identify them to type. Initially after looking at spectrograms, I was pretty sure the birds were Type 2s. However, I emailed the recordings and spectrograms to Matt Young who studies crossbill types at Cornell, who identified them as likely being the very similar Type 1 since, among other reasons, the highest point in the calls falls above 2.5kHz, they show faint upticks, and Type 1 is the most common in the Appalachians.


Red Crossbill Spectrogram (http://www.xeno-canto.org/350977)

Altogether quite a good morning of birding, spending some quality time in a lovely spot I hadn’t birded before and with some even lovelier finches.

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A Sunday Afternoon Brant

A few days ago, a couple birders found a brant on Conneaut Lake in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. There has been a recent influx of brant to the region in the past couple weeks with some being seen as flybys in Ohio, a flyby flock in Erie, PA, and a single bird which set up shop on a lake just over the border from me in Ohio, so this newly found bird fit the trend well and when it was found during the school week, I started to make plans to give chase this weekend. Around the same time however, news broke that the brant which had been hanging around in Ohio, had been shot by hunters, who had possibly heard of it from birding listservs. So it was with a renewed sense of urgency that I started the two hour drive north on Sunday. It turns out I needn’t have worried.

Within 60 seconds of arriving at the lake, the goose had been spotted, and it spent the next half hour or so grazing and paddling around within 20 feet of me, seemingly not caring about anyone or anything. A not so subtle reminder that one of the few things better than seeing a rare bird is crushing one.



Juvenile Brant (note the white edging on the tertials)

Most of the rest of the day was spent getting my duck fix at some nearby ponds and lakes. Despite the double digit duck species and passing 100 species for Crawford County, the post-brant highlight was watching the acrobatics of 40 or so Bonaparte’s gulls as they fished. This time of year, when Bonies come through, is one of my favourite parts of migration. I literally will never get tired of photographing the tiny gulls and I seem to take way too many photos every time. Today I took a couple hundred. Naturally.



Bonaparte’s Gull

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Tale of Three Vagrants

For the past week I have been in Florida briefly before heading down to the Dominican Republic day after tomorrow (much more on that later). While it has not been a birding trip, I have had a bit of time to do some birding. This has been highlighted by a couple of vagrant chases which have once again proved the great birding potential of Florida.

The first chase was for the two vagrants which have been seen recently at Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys. The two birds there have been black-faced grassquit (code 4) and, even better, a zenaida dove (code 5). I pulled into the State Park a bit after dawn. It took me a couple of minutes to reorient and figure out where I was going as I had last been to the park last year for the Key West quail-dove being seen there.

Even when I figured out the appropriate trail to take to the dove, it took me a while to find the exact location. Eventually, half an hour and a yellow-crowned night-heron later, I found the pink flagging marking the spot for the zenaida, and accompanying birder looking for the bird.

Tragically however he had not seen the bird yet and gave me the news that it was apparently a somewhat challenging bird to find. The lack of doves in general (except for a common ground-dove which kept popping everywhere) didn’t reassure me much. After a while where the only bird to emerge from the brush was a grey catbird, a friend of the birder present called to say that she had located the grassquit at the campgrounds. Figuring the dove might not show and that I could return for it later, I decided to get the guaranteed bird first (after all, a bird in the hand is reputed to be worth a zenaida dove in the bush).

This turned out to be a fruitful decision for I could hear the grassquit calling as soon as I walked up to the campsite it was being seen at. Within ten seconds, I saw it too. Over the time I watched it, it gave fantastic views as it flitted around, foraging on both sides of the road. At one point, it even came within 5 feet of me. One of the easiest to locate and most confiding ABA Area rarities I have ever seen.



Black-faced Grassquit

Check! and back to the dove. However, before the dove showed itself, I had to return to Key Largo to check out of my hotel which I had optimistically  hoped I would have been able to see both birds before having to do. Some hurried packing and a shot of Cuban coffee later, I was back at the park.

In the time I had been gone, a number more birders had gathered at the dove spot. They informed me that the group of nonbirders which had been walking not far in front of me had flushed the bird which had been foraging on the trail. In other words, I had missed it by 15 seconds. Better people than I would have been overwhelmed with shadenfreude. I however was not so entertained and settled down to wait, more determined than ever to locate the thing.

Slowly the birders began to trickle away until there was only 1 left. After about 2 hours, they do left. However, on their way out, they spotted a dove sitting in the brush. They assumed it was just a mourning but they called me over to look at it anyway. Sure enough, there was the zenaida dove staring at me, unconcerned, just off trail.


Zenaida Dove

How little the bird seemed to care about the two birds staring at it gave me a great opportunity to study and sketch my first code 5. However, the Florida heat eventually overcame my fragile, cold-loving British body and I beat a hasty retreat; back to the shade.

As an aside, while I was watching the dove, a couple got engaged on the beach behind me. I felt a bit bad for them having a birder right there staring into the underbrush and a shutter loudly clicking during what was supposed to be one of the most perfect moments of their lives, but I guess that’s what you get when you propose where there’s a code 5!

The next day, I, now relaxing on a beach in Boca Raton got word that a Cuban pewee had been found at a park on Key Biscayne, only an hour south of me. As this was only the fifth ABA record I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to chase. Bumming a ride off of my sister, I headed south.

The bird turned out to be about as difficult to find as the grassquit had been. A number of birders were already on sight and had the bird in their sights. Naturally I couldn’t resist observing the rare flycatcher and taking about a thousand photos as it hawked for wasps within a matter of feet from the admiring crowd.



Cuban Pewee (note particularly the long bill and white crescent behind eye)

In the hour or so I watched it, it called once giving a series of three “pip” notes and caught a number of insects. An absolutely cracking bird and one which I will likely not see again for a while. Unfortunately, it would not be seen again after that day, making me extremely thankful for having been able to chase it when I did, for I could easily have missed it.

Already, this trip is hard to beat with two code 5s and a code 4 alright being spotted, but I still have a day left in the peninsula of sun and with it comes a good chance to make this trip even better. Stay tuned for more from Florida as well as Hispaniola!

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More Fun in the Alpine (Camp Colorado Day 3)

Lifers Denoted by Bold

My doormates and I woke up earlier than the rest of the group the next morning and went out with the goal of finding dusky grouse. Outside it was still raining, but it looked as if it might be starting to clear away; a good sign for us as it gave us a glimmer of hope of making it up to the tundra that day.

Silently as we tried to fully wake up, we trudged over to the area of the property where we had seen Williamson’s sapsucker the day before. We had been told the night before that the best way to find grouse was to move slowly through good habitat and scan for movement. We followed these instructions to the letter, fanning out through the forest and paying close attention for our quarry.

I also made use of the opportunity of birding with a small group to make some recordings of bird song. The rain kept a lot of birds down but I got some nice recordings of a few western species.

A large buck mule deer made an appearance as we hiked through the sage patches lining the hills, and we spotted a mountain chickadee nest accompanied by a pair of birds singing persistently over the sound of the nearby creek, its banks swollen with days of near-continuous rain.

The surprise bird of the morning was a belted kingfisher which we heard calling as it flew along the entrance road to the YMCA; a bird I had never really thought about being at such high elevations.

We had to be back at the dorms for breakfast however, so we soon had to turn back and make our way in that directions, unfortunately without the grouse we had hoped for but pleased with what had been a very enjoyable early morning jaunt.

Arriving back at the dorms, we found that we would not be going to the tundra that day due to the rain and would instead be doing a bit more alpine birding. After a quick breakfast, we set out to do just that.

Unsurprisingly given the weather for the past couple of days, it was raining when we arrived at Endovalley in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, we were undeterred and quickly were rewarded for our efforts with a red-naped sapsucker nest and the first western wood-pewee of the trip.


Western Wood-pewee

Beginning to hike, we got views of Stellar’s jay, another first for the trip, and well as more views of red-naped sapsuckers and great looks and audio of a male Macgillivray’s warbler.

This area of the park had apparently been heavily flooded a few years back and the effects were obvious as the trail was still a bit washed out and we would pass the occasional large boulder, failing to blend in in the lowland valley.

The trail was rather short and eventually ended at a large waterfall. It looked like perfect habitat for an American dipper and indeed it was as one of these lead-coloured birds soon bobbed into view. A Townsend’s solitaire and “western” warbling vireo nest were other highlights.


Warbling Vireo Nest


Townsend’s Solitaire in the Rain

Driving to another spot in Endovalley, we could see large stands of aspen in the meadows bordering the road. This is the habitat that is typical of this portion of the park and brings a unique suite of birds with it. The swathes of aspen are particularly vital for cavity nesting birds such as red-naped sapsuckers and tree swallows. Proof of this was quickly discovered when we got out of the vans at our next stop as nests of both these species were soon found. Lincoln’s sparrows and Macgillivray’s warblers sang in the background as we birded our way through a few aspen groves. Wilson’s warblers at a nest were good to see, as was a song sparrow and tree and violet-green swallows sitting side-by-side, making for great comparison.


Red-naped Sapsucker

However, the real highlight of the morning was to come on the drive out of Endovalley. The silence of the vans was broken as Jack Chaillet, another camper from Pittsburgh, called out that he had seen a grouse. Panic quickly broke out as the van slammed to a stop, everyone craned their necks to where Jack was directing, the other van was radioed with what had been seen, and the campers all prepared for a hasty exit from the van.

Sure enough, when we got out of the van, we spotted a female dusky grouse along the roadside. However, even better than just seeing this great bird was that it had 6(!) chicks with it!!



Dusky Grouse


Dusky Grouse Chick

The next twenty minutes of so were incredible as we watched the grouse family slowly meander its way across the slope, not seeming to care that more than 20 pairs of eyes were staring at it and that an ungodly number of camera lenses were pointing at it. An out of place yellow-bellied marmot and a heard-only flyover Clark’s nutcracker sweetened the deal a bit more.

However, we couldn’t watch the grouse forever (much as we would have wanted to) and had to move on. Before pulling out however, a passer-by told us that they had just seen a moose in the meadow across the road from us. This would have been a great mammal to see and so we all hiked back in the direction in which they pointed us. However, we saw no sign of the moose and we decided that startling an adult moose wasn’t the best idea so we quickly gave up.

Still high off of dusky grouse, we arrived at our next stop, Beaver Meadows, where we were going to try for American three-toed woodpecker after our dip the day before. The rain began to pick up again after a brief lull as we unloaded the vans and began to walk down the trail, a bad omen for woodpecker success. The three-toed was indeed a no-show but two Williamson’s sapsuckers and a beautiful mountain bluebird made up for it a bit (not that we could be disapointed after the grouse show).


Williamson’s Sapsucker

After returning to the YMCA and eating a much-needed lunch, we were permitted by another brief break in the rain to go down to the banding station on the property where Scott Rashid was banding. Banding is always good to see and this demonstration was particularly so as it was the first time I have seen interior western birds in the hand. The cordilleran flycatcher, band-tailed pigeons, uinta chipmunks, and Cassin’s finches around the banding station didn’t hurt much either. However, it was a bit overshadowed when, just after the banding was finished, a northern goshawk came ripping through the feeding station and landed in a bush just past it. The camp exploded into chaos as shouts of “Goshawk!” went up and everyone ran to get a look at it perched (those who had missed the one on the first day were especially anxious to get a look). However, the bird didn’t stay still for long and quickly launched itself off its perched and careened into the woods.

Not to be beaten that easily, a number of us took off at a full sprint (a challenging feat while carrying a ten-pound camera) in the direction which it had flown, hoping to catch it as it exited the woods. However, arriving, slightly out of breath, at the far end of the woodlot, we saw no sign of the massive accipiter. We fanned out from there, determined to relocate it and began to search the woods. After maybe 5 minutes, a camper gave out a shout that he saw it in flight and sure enough it burst out of the forest and gained altitude, heading up over the buildings of the YMCA, a couple of American crows not far behind.

And that was the way in which we rounded out the third day of Camp Colorado, a day which, despite our initially lower expectations, ended up being one of the best days of the camp.

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