Best Birds 2015 Edition

Truth be told, I am actually surprised I birded and generated a list at least once every month! I did cut it rather close with February and November. Perhaps  I should change my  handle to badbirder….  Anyway 27 minutes until the clock strikes 12….

So how many lists did I submit? It was an  up and down year, but over all lower than  in years past.  This was also the first year that I was in grad school for the entirety of the year. Grad school and birding do not go as well together as one would think!

Lists Submitted to Ebird by Month

month 2013 2014 2015
January  50 2 26
February  34 4 1
March  25 4 4
April  22 26 12
May  24 36 13
June  16 10 15
July  5 3 19
August  22 6 6
September  4 9 2
October  8 17 4
November  5 5 1
December  8 9 5
Year 223 131 109

So still respectable?  In regards to species, it became even more extreme with ups and downs.  I had a drop of 98 species between September 2014 and September 2015, but an increase of 101 from January 2014 to January  2015.  Travel makes a difference!

Species By Month

month 2013 2014 2015
January 70 30 131  (65) *
February 52 39 17 (0)
March 60 46 40
April 48 87 52
May 114 162 101
June 64 85 54 (0) **
July 37 32 48 (0) **
August  65 40 45 (13) **
September  72 102 10
October  57 114 34
November  63 86 6
December  79 90 65
Year 200 222 287 (169)***

* Includes Florida birding efforts.NY/NJ totals in ()
** Includes Honduran birding efforts. NY/NJ totals in ().
*** Global total. NY/NJ totals in ().

In Florida, Tara and I picked up 100 species, and while I don’t have all the records updated yet, I believe I also observed 100 birds in Honduras (ebird currently has 81 listed).

As I compile this review, what surprises me the most is now many life birds I picked up.  Traveling for nearly  3 months really helps!   So  91 new lifers added to the list.  I won’t bore you by listing them all.

However, I will close with some of my favorite photos already  shared this year:

And my  clock  warns me that I have less than  5 minutes remaining…

Cavorting at Cape Florida

This post could also be called “A Reason to Return”.  There are two reasons, so settle in for a long story.

On our first conference free day, Tara and I decided to venture over to the Gulf Coast to visit J. N. Ding Darling NWR.  However, Our foray was not meant to be.

What we didn’t realize when we arrived is that there are three classes of roads in Florida.  There are the streets with a light at every possible intersection (very slow going!), the freeways (highways without a cost, also very slow going!), and the tollroads (much faster going!).  However, Florida has switched over to a mandatory automated toll payment system based on either a tag or your license plate (no more cash/coin payments!).  If you inadvertently drive through without the tag, they sent the fee to the address associated with the license, no big deal and no big cost, unless you happen to be in a rental vehicle.  If you are in a rental, then you are charged a ~$50 surcharge for each day you go through tolls.   If you wish to rent a tag in addition to the vehicle, it’s $10/day.  Neither option is ideal.  So our solution was avoid toll roads.  Which doesn’t work if you want to go to Disney World or travel across the state.  We didn’t want Disney but we did need to cross southern Florida.  We searched and searched, but couldn’t figure out a route after accidentally getting on the toll road and getting right off again. (Had we just kept going we would have had the fine either way and very different birds to share, oh well!).

By the way, the solution we learned on our way out of Florida is to purchase a tag at a grocery store. It’s a few dollars and prevents the charge going to the lisence and thus through the rental agency.   Now, you know too, and back to the birds.

Since going west was a fail…

“”Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” “That,” I said, “is very frank advice, but it is medicine easier given than taken. It is a wide country, but I do not know just where to go.” “It is all room away from the pavements. […]” 
                  —Josiah Bushnell Grinnell [3]

We went south.  We drove into Miami-Dade county (home of the 2000 election controversy which was realized as we drove through!) and decided to visit Not Bilbo Baggins, but Bill Baggs Cape Florida SP (Bilbo Baggins would be much better a name!)

Cape Florida: What's a post about Florida beaches without sand or a lighthouse?   Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Cape Florida: What’s a post about Florida beaches without sand or a lighthouse? Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Since many more of you know of Bilbo Baggins than Bill Baggs: Bill Baggs was a Miami journalist and editor who did much coverage of racial tensions in Florida during the 50s and 60s as well as opposed the Vietnam War (per Wikipedia).  More relevantly, he supported Florida conservation efforts.  So we ended up at Bill Baggs State Park.

There was a lighthouse (pictured above) and white sand beaches (not pictured), but there were also birds. Not the tons and tons we were hoping for, but quality enough that it made the excursion worthwhile.

Immature Double-crested Cormorant flying   just above the water.  Playing with birds on the move and the telephoto lens. Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Immature Double-crested Cormorant flying just above the water. Playing with birds on the move and the telephoto lens. Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

There’ll be a few photos of Cormorants in this post in part because they were common, but also because they’re super cool!  As we were wandering around the interior, I happened to look up to spot this fellow: Short-tailed Hawk.  Short-tailed Hawk was  on our wish list.

Our only view of a Short-tailed Hawk during our entire visit.  Much more cooperative than the Galapagos Hawk of a year past! Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Our only view of a Short-tailed Hawk during our entire visit. Much more cooperative than the Galapagos Hawk of a year past! Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

I also happened to look up and spot a Magnificent Frigatebird, but no luck on that photo. (I have plenty from Galapagos to tide me over though!).

After seeing what the park had to offer, we decided to move on a bit and try nearby  Bear Cut Preserve at Crandon Park.  Most of the birds were to be found around the Marjory Stoneman Douglas visitor’s center (which was lovely).   We spotted 3 Eurasian Collared Doves around the building.

Eurasian Collared Dove looking mournful it's not a mourning dove.  Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Eurasian Collared Dove looking mournful it’s not a mourning dove. Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

We walked their recommended trail and came across a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (not pictured) and then walked back along the beach  (frequently ranked in the top 10 of America’s best beaches) where we came across this view:

The only fossilized reefs in the world.  How cool?! Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

The only fossilized reefs in Florida. How cool?! Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

What you’re looking at are fossilized mangrove reefs.  They’re really only inches tall here.  I suspect they’re mostly buried under the sand. And yes, that is Miami in the background. More on fossil reefs can be learned here.

Second photo of the still only fossilized reefs in the world.  Still cool. Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Second photo of the still only fossilized reefs in Florida. Still cool. Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

I’m including the next photo just because I like the alignment of birds.  Some type of gull.

The detail on the photo is rubbish.  But I love the clouds and the alignment of the birds.  Authentic photo, no photoshopping here! Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

The detail on the photo is rubbish. But I love the clouds and the alignment of the birds. Authentic photo, no photoshopping here! Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

As we returned, the tide was creeping out and by just rolling up our pants (in my case because only I go to Florida and still wear pants!) a few inches, could we walk out along  a sandbar to get much closer to the birds.

Glorious detail of Double-crested Cormorant feathers. Double-crested Cormorant feathers are cool.  Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Glorious detail of Double-crested Cormorant feathers. Double-crested Cormorant feathers are cool. Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Yes, this Cormorant has his back to us, but note the feathers. The feathers are truly amazing.  Feathers of cormorants are truly amazing.  I recently read a paper discussing the unusual feather structure in Great Cormorants.  Any birder familiar with Cormorants knows how they stand with their wings outstretched.  Why?  All birds have fine feather control.  What this means is that there are muscles attached to their feathers that allows the precise rearrangement of each feather.  It is believed that cormorants manipulate their feathers underwater to help them dive.

Consider it this way.  Birds have these amazing adaptations that help them take to the sky: they need to be lightweight.  However, this is not beneficial if you want to sink, which cormorants do.  Thus, as they dive, scientists hypothesize cormorants rearrange their feathers allowing water to seep in, decreasing their buoyancy whereas most birds will arrange their feathers in such a way as to repel water.   When you look at the structure of the feathers themselves, cormorant feathers are actually different: the density of the barbs is actually where it’s thinnest in other birds.

A less than white looking American White Pelican. Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

A less than white looking American White Pelican. Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

After our visit to Bear Cut Preserve, we headed to the other side of the road to Miami Seaquarium Marina where we picked up more gulls and views of aquatic birds. The feather detail on the American White Pelican is also notable.  So colorful!  And the bill looks like the Pelican had a wonderful, messy encounter with a painter.

Preening Double-crested Cormorant.Photo taken on January 8, 2015  with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Preening Double-crested Cormorant.Photo taken on January 8, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Preening cormorant.  Got to wet those feathers just right.

Regarding the second reason to return.  It wasn’t until much later in the trip, possibly the flight home when I got to the portion of Kenn Kaufman’s book discussing the birds of Florida’s Cape.  Clearly we needed to go further south and even out on the water for the best birds.  So some day we will definitely need to return to Florida for both the more western and more southern birds.  Onward, birds!

Florida Total: 76
Bill Baggs State Park, Cape Florida: 23
Bear Cut Preserve, Crandon Park: 18
Miami Seaquarium Marina: 8
New for Florida: 13
Lifers: 2

Paper: Ribak, G., Weihs, D. & Arad, Z. Water retention in the plumage of diving great cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis. J. Avian Biol. 36, 89–95 (2005).

Back to Business at Brigantine

Hopefully now that fall migration is settling down, I can catch up with the blogging. (Ha) I’ve been doing things, bird things even, but it’s hard to write with binoculars or a bird in the the hand. Though I hear that’s worth two in the bush!

In mid-September I had the opportunity to join the Montclair State University ornithology class on their first trip. Destination: Brigantine.

The conditions were rubbish for photography, but we saw decent birds.  It was windy, cloudy, and high tide!

Mute Swan only, no Tundra this trip.   We had a fair showing for ducks in September.  I may have picked up Green-winged and blue-winged Teal for year.  So, since it’s two months late, no more words, enjoy photos and bird lists!

Blustery day at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Blustery day at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Mute Swans swim through the rushes and reeds of the  freshwater interior. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Mute Swans swim through the rushes and reeds of the freshwater interior. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Lone Double-crested Cormorant at high tide. Brigatine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Lone Double-crested Cormorant at high tide. Brigatine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpipers nice and close because it's high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpipers nice and close because it’s high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Equally close Least Sandpiper at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Equally close Least Sandpiper at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Ospreys have similar problems to people.  I'm pretty sure that it's feathe Brigantine / Forsythers are blowing in its eyes. NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Ospreys have similar problems to people. I’m pretty sure that it’s feathers are blowing in its eyes. Brigantine / Forsyther. NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Boat-tailed Grackle. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.Boat-tailed Grackle. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Seaside or Saltmarsh Sparrows abound. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Seaside Sparrows abound. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Mute Swan
Wood Duck
American Black Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Oystercatcher
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Laughing Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Black Skimmer
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Peregrine Falcon
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

If at first you don’t succeed…

A. Quit.
B. Get reinforcements
C. Blame external conditions
D. Blame the gods
E. All of the above

These are the choices of a birder having a bad day.  How many times have you just decided to call it a day, asked another birder if they’ve had better luck finding the target, or blamed conditions?

Afterwards, you…. (select all that apply.)
A. Check ebird for more specifics on location
B. Verify field markings in a field guide/allaboutbirds
C. Call reinforcements
D. Go back again

The number of answer choices selected in question 2 indicates your level Birder Style.  (By the way, if you selected all of the above, you are an Obsessed Birder).

All of this leads me to my pursuit of George this past September.  (Can you tell what type of birder I am yet?)

So George is not a person, not even a birder.  The truth is George was a RBA celebrity.  George appeared in late July at the Meadowlands.  He was an overnight wonder.  The glossiest white feathers, a much bulkier frame; he put the egrets to shame.   And to every birder’s delight he stayed. and stayed. and stayed.

He wasn’t seen every day, but it was it was close.  Birders grew to know him on a very personal level.  They knew his favorite dinning locations at low tide; where he’d go when he needed a change of pace.  He was the celebrity that lived in your neighborhood, much like Mr. Rogers.

He was there throughout the summer, but I couldn’t get away to see him for myself.  15 minutes from my own apartment and I was house-sitting in another state!

Finally September rolled around and I was free to pursue George.  First we forgot to do our research before going.  That was that was Thursday.  So I returned at the next possible opportunity: Saturday.  Here’s what I saw:

Yellowlegs huddled on a distant shore. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Yellowlegs huddled on a distant shore. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Nope, no George slumbering here.

Snowy Egret and Yellowlegs size comparison. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Snowy Egret and Solitary Sandpipers size comparison. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

No George here either.

Black and white. Cormorants and a white bird at a great distance. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Black and white. Double-crested Cormorants and a white bird at a great distance. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

So a white bird at a far distance. Had its back toward me the entire time.  Visible from the New Jersey Turnpike, I’m sure, but not from my spot.

Conditions were not favorable. So home again I went. The new week began and reports of George’s habits continued. So the next Thursday rolled around. By this time, I was pretty sure I had the precise location of George’s favorite fishing hole.  Now for confirmation.

Solitary sandpipers aren't so solitary.  These solitary sandpipers look like they're skating on ice. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Solitary sandpipers aren’t so solitary. These solitary sandpipers look like they’re skating on ice. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Negative on George.

The Solitary Sandpipers now look like speed skaters in the mud. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

The Solitary Sandpipers now look like speed skaters in the mud. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Still nothing.

Red-tailed Hawk. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Red-tailed Hawk. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Not George.

Hidden in the yellowlegs: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser as well as Short-billed Dowitchers. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Hidden in the yellowlegs: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser as well as Short-billed Dowitchers. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Finding George is like finding Waldo, or not.

A migrating Yellow Warbler passes through. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

A migrating Yellow Warbler passes through. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Wrong color for George.

Conclusive proof as we're going to get: George the American White Pelican at the Meadowlands.  NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Conclusive proof as we’re going to get: George the American White Pelican at the Meadowlands. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

George!

The Merry Month of May

Was very busy!  I only submitted 24 lists, most of which were megathon outings from fieldwork for either kestrels or turtles because May has been a very busy month (as has June!)  In addition to the birding,  I worked extra hours every week, defended my thesis, completed my Masters Program, and moved!

May saw 32 life birds, 113 different species, bringing the total to 150 for the year.

Cormorants sunbathing after work.

Cormorants sunbathing after work.

Apparently I’m on a cormorant kick. Hopefully more posts as we settle into the month, including another kestrel research update from the most recent outing.