My wife and I have recently returned from a week in Lubec, the easternmost town in the state of Maine. We visited one of my favorite birding spots in the state, the South Lubec Sand Bar, several times. The sand bar is a mile-long spit, accessible from the South Lubec Road not far from West Quoddy Head. The sand bar is owned and maintained by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
` The bar is a regionally significant stop-over site for migrating shorebirds. Thirty years ago, this habitat hosted up to 10,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers in August and September. Such spectacular numbers of this species no longer pass through the region but the species occurs regularly by the hundreds.
A birder can form an impressive list of shorebirds by hiking to the end of the bar and back. At low tide the birds are widely dispersed along the extensive intertidal flats, a result of the 20-foot tidal range in Cobscook Bay. Birding at low tide is therefore a fool’s errand. At high tide, the birds fly inland to roost in fields and other open areas. So, to see the most birds, timing your trip to the tidal cycle is paramount. I prefer to work the rising tide. I arrive at the bar about three hours before the predicted high tide. Within an hour, the birds are pushed near shore by the incoming tide. For the next hour, the birds are concentrated in the upper intertidal. That hour is birding heaven with the birds closely packed. As the tide pushes the birds into the upper intertidal zone where food in the mudflats is sparse, the shorebirds head for their upland roosts. Some people like to work the falling tide, arriving on site an hour or so after high tide and waiting for the shorebirds to return.
Our lists contained the usual species expected at this time of year: Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone. A couple of unseen American Golden-Plovers gave their distinctive, plaintive “que-del” call. Other birders found a Baird’s Sandpiper and two Western Sandpipers, both excellent finds for Maine. We were delighted to see two Marbled Godwits, the first I’ve seen in Washington County in over 30 years of birding there. We were also thrilled to see a Red-necked Phalarope foraging in the intertidal zone.
We found three Great Egrets, the first I have seen in Cobscook Bay. A female Northern Harrier put on a show over the adjacent marsh. We found no falcons although Peregrine Falcons and Merlins are often present, looking for a shorebird meal. We have even had Parasitic Jaegers here.
You don’t have to travel Downeast to find prime shorebird habitat. Any intertidal mudflat at this time of year will likely be productive. Just use the tide to your advantage to concentrate the birds for easy viewing. Freshwater mudflats can be productive as well and you are not wedded to the tide table to plan a visit.
The tundra-nesting shorebirds we see show a staged migration, adults arriving first and then juveniles a few weeks later. The short breeding season in the arctic means that parents only have time for one brood per season. To increase the chances of surviving another year and reproducing again, sandpipers are under pressure to begin their southbound migration as soon as possible.
Because shorebird chicks can fend for themselves soon after hatching, the parents migrate from the breeding grounds before their young have even learned to fly! Along the Maine coast, the first adult shorebird migrants begin showing up by the middle of July. Juvenile sandpipers and plovers are just starting to arrive in Maine now.
Check your field guide to see how to distinguish adult from juveniles for each species. As a general rule, juveniles have brighter and crisper plumages.; their feathers are just a few weeks old.
Oceanic islands are fascinating to anyone with an interest in biology. Thrust up from the deep ocean floor, oceanic islands are blank canvases. Colonization of plants and animals from continental areas occurs by rafting or by being carried on the wind. Some of these colonists establish a stronghold on the new island, enriching the diversity. Over time, these colonists often diverge from their mainland relatives, producing new species. Thus, endemic species are born, found nowhere else.
Oceanic islands often occur in groups so adjacent islands serve as sources of colonists as well. A group of oceanic islands may have shared endemic species as well as species endemic to a single island.
The Caribbean islands offer the opportunity to see a diversity endemic species. For birds, Cuba has 30 endemic species, Jamaica has 30, Puerto Rico has 18 and the winner in the endemic species contest is Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with 32 endemic species. Other smaller islands have their own endemic species. In addition, some species are restricted to the Caribbean but are found on multiple islands. Altogether, the Caribbean offers over 170 bird species that can be seen nowhere else.
In January, my wife Bets and I along with our friends Pat and Dave Lincoln participated in a guided tour of the Dominican Republic with the goal of finding all 31 endemic bird species (one Hispaniolan endemic is found only in Haiti).
As a hedge against a winter storm in Maine, Bets and I booked a flight a day early to make sure we would arrive in the Dominican Republic when the tour started. We used that extra day to explore the colonial area of Santo Domingo. We had no trouble finding our first endemic, the Palm Chat. This streaked bird, about the size of a Blue Jay, is common everywhere. It is the Dominican national bird. This species is so different from other birds that it is placed in its own family, the Dulidae. DNA comparisons tell us that waxwings are its closest relatives.
We found Hispaniolan Parakeets as well. Oddly, this species seems to be most common in urban areas. Other species seen included Antillean Palm Swifts, Gray Kingbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Bananaquits.
Our tour began the following day with a trip to the National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo.
Antillean Grackles greeted us at the gate. The cement trails through the extensive garden made for easy walking.
We saw lots of familiar birds, particularly warblers. Black-and-white Warblers, Cape May Warblers, American Redstarts, Northern Parulas and Prairie Warblers were common.
Stolid Flycatchers flitted around as well. A Red-legged Thrush was spectacular in the sunlight.
With considerable effort, we got good looks at Black-whiskered Vireos. We got great views of a Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo and Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, our third and fourth island endemics of the trip.
A few West Indian Whistling-ducks, included eight polka-dotted ducklings, showed nicely. We saw a few tiny Vervain Hummingbirds, the second smallest bird in the world, barely larger than the Cuban Bumblebee Hummingbird.
On the way out, we found a Black-capped Palm-Tanager, another endemic I was keen to see. This species, along with three other Hispaniolan species, is placed in its own family, the Phaenicophilidae.
With five endemics under our belt, we headed to the southwestern part of the country. Our home for the next two nights was Villa Barancoli, a field station in Puerto Escondido. Arriving late in the day, we got a nice look at White-necked Crows for another endemic species under our belts. A brief walk at dusk yielded Common Gallinules, Green Herons and a Baltimore Oriole
After a nice dinner, we all hit the sack. We departed at 4 AM in three four-wheel drive vehicles the next day for one of the most memorable birding days of my life.
We departed at 4:00 AM from Villa Barancolí in Puerto Escondido to visit the mountainous region of Sierra de Bahoruco National Park at Zapoten, just east of the Haitian border.
We departed in three four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles for the eight-mile ride to the field site. The last six miles of the trip were over a boulder-strewn road with frequent wash-outs. It took us nearly two hours to drive those six miles.
It was still pitch-dark when we arrived and our first quarry of the day, Hispaniolan Nightjar, would not begin to vocalize until closer to dawn. Attracted by a recording, one male perched briefly over a branch spanning the road and we got short but satisfying looks at this island endemic.
Our next target was La Selle’s Thrush, a dead ringer for an American Robin in silhouette but strikingly colored and furtive. The birds come out on the road to forage at dawn but are difficult to see at other times of the day. This species became our nemesis. Several whizzed across the track, affording no views. Our leader walked further up the track and found one foraging on the road. By the time our party had gotten to the scope, a Zenaida Dove had landed on the road and scared the thrush away. But a White-fronted Quail-Dove, an endemic even more secretive than La Selle’s Thrush, walked onto the road.
As the sun rose, we gave up on the La Selle’s Thrush for the morning and concentrated on other birds. Where to start? Hispaniolan Emeralds, an endemic hummingbird, flitted about as we had our picnic breakfasts.
Different species kept popping up, each as wonderful as the one before. We had Hispaniolan Trogons, Antillean Piculet (a woodpecker relative), Hispaniolan Pewees, Golden Swallows and wonderful flutists, Rufous-sided Solitaires.
We saw several delightful Narrow-billed Todies. These are small but feisty green birds with long, thin bills. The four species of todies are all endemic to the Greater Antilles and two of them are only found in Hispaniola.
I was most eager to see several species whose taxonomic position has only recently been clarified. We saw some Western Chat-tanagers, one of two members of the endemic family, Calyptophilidae. These are skulking birds, difficult to see well.
We found White-winged Warblers and Green-tailed Warblers, both now classified in the Phaenicophilidae family along with the Black-crowned Palm-Tanager. Common names can be confusing!
We also found the stripe-headed endemic Hispaniolan Spindalis, one of four species in the family Spindalidae, found only in the Greater Antilles and Bahamas.
We drove around mid-day to a stand of pines in hopes of finding Hispaniolan Crossbill (a dead ringer for our White-winged Crossbill). We heard lots of Pine Warblers and finally spotted a couple of crossbills at the top of a large pine.
All of these endemic birds were joined by familiar friends: Northern Parulas, Black-and-white Warblers, Cape May Warblers and Black-throated Blue Warblers.
Later in the afternoon, a few of us were walking along the track and we heard a call note that seemed identical to a call note I have heard at tree line on Mt. Katahdin. Patience rewarded us with views of a Bicknell’s Thrush. Nearly all of these birds winter in Hispaniola and nest mainly in northern New England.
Determined to see La Selle’s Thrush, we decided to pile into a single pick-up and drive the track, hoping a thrush would be found foraging on the road at dusk. We got to hear several singing and had brief views. A Hispaniolan Parrot was a nice addition.
Departing in darkness, we arrived at Villa Barancolí for a late supper after an exhausting but exhilarating day.
After a spectacular day in Zapoten in the southwestern part of the country, we had found 24 of the 31 endemic species. The following morning, we left for La Placa with to search for three target species.
Our first target, Flat-billed Vireo, was easily found along with a couple of Broad-billed Todies. A Merlin whizzed by.
The second target, the Bay-breasted Cuckoo, is a species that most visiting birders fail to find. Our hopes were up when a large cuckoo appeared. Alas, it was the endemic Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, an endemic we had already found.
Our local guide suggested a different site. Sure enough, we heard the call of the Bay-breasted. It responded to a tape of its call and perched in view for several minutes. We were sky high!
A road alongside pastures and occasional trees held our last endemic of the morning, Hispaniolan Oriole. We also had nice views of Yellow-faced Grassquits.
After a nice lunch in Puerto Escondido, we departed for our motel in Pedernales. We made our usual pre-dawn departure the next day for the Alcoa Road in search of Ashy-faced Owl. No luck that morning so we headed to Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) after dawn to look for seabirds. Several White-tailed Tropicbirds delighted us there.
We continued from Cabo Rojo to a lagoon teeming with birds.
We saw dozens of Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers and Stilt Sandpipers. The assemblage could have been seen in Scarborough Marsh except for the Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and White Ibises.
Back to the Alcoa Road, this time in search of Hispaniolan Palm Crows. We knew that a local ranger fed them and they usually arrived mid-morning. So we began a vigil, enjoying the Pine Warblers and Hispaniolan Parrots in the area while we waited.
A couple of crows called to announce their arrival and then landed on the ground, affording great views. Our 28th endemic species! A Hispaniolan Crossbill was an added bonus.
After a delightful lunch, we headed east for Cachote. We began the drive up the very rough road at dusk in search of Ashy-faced Owl. Our leader walked a bit ahead and located a perched owl. He about to call us when two mopeds drove past from one direction and a pick-up truck form the other, blaring loud music with a bunch of adolescent girls singing along from the back of the truck. The owl was gone!
Fortunately, our leader was able to relocate the owl and we all got great looks at this Barn Owl relative.
We descended to our motel, departing pre-dawn the next day.
We returned to Cachote, proceeding much further up the mountain. Our goal was the Eastern Chat-Tanager, an endemic that is mostly found in the eastern part of the country. Arriving at the site just after dawn, we got many brief but ultimately satisfying views of these skulkers.
We then began the long drive to Caño Hondo in the northeastern part of the country in search of our last endemic, the rare Ridgway’s Hawk.
We arrived after dark in heavy rain that continued all night. The next morning, we slogged along the muddy trail with a local guide to an observation site.
A bridge across a small stream was underwater from all the rain. We had to take off our boots, roll up our pants legs and wade across. It was worth it: a female Ridgway’s Hawk perched out in the open for over 15 minutes.
The hawk was our final target. Thanks to our knowledgeable leaders, we managed to find all 31 of the endemic birds of the Dominican Republic.
The next day, everyone got to see Caribbean Martins at the Santo Domingo Airport for a nice parting gift from this wonderful country.
My wife and I recently returned from a relaxing ten-day cruise in the Caribbean (November 6-16, 2017). We visited seven islands, most of which had been spared from the wrath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Most of the land excursions were centered on general sight-seeing or visiting historical sites. We had to do our birding on a catch-as-catch-can basis while enjoying other aspects of the islands.
Caribbean birding is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the species diversity of the islands is generally much lower than the diversity of continents. On the other, many of the birds are endemic to the Caribbean. Some of these birds are island endemics, restricted to a single island.
During the winter, island bird diversity increases due to the arrival of wintering North American migratory birds.
We boarded our ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This island is still suffering mightily from Hurricane Maria. A planned trip to the El Yunque Rainforest was out of the question.
A walking tour through the historic part of San Juan did yield some birds. Greater Antillean Grackles, playing a similar role to our Common Grackles, were abundant. We saw several Gray Kingbirds, the first of many sightings of this common Caribbean species. Introduced Monk Parakeets were conspicuous, loudly announcing their presence. A couple of Pearl-eyed Thrashers posed obligingly. Several Spotted Sandpipers flew in their stiff-winged style along the shore.
We set sail for St. Kitts, arriving around noon. We were able to do some open ocean birding en route. Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds were abundant.
We picked out a Masked Booby and a couple of
Red-footed Boobies from the many birds following the ship.
A ride on an open-air train gave us a good feel for the island but few birds. Highlights were Zenaida Doves, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Carib Grackles and the ubiquitous Gray Kingbirds.
The following day, a visit to the gardens at Romney Manor turned up an old friend, an American Redstart. Bananaquits were common. Caribbean endemics were a Brown Trembler (a thrasher), Green-throated Carib (a hummer), Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher and Lesser Antillean Bullfinch.
An excursion that afternoon to Fairview Great House yielded a White-winged Dove (unusual for St. Kitts) and a pair of American Kestrels.
On to St. Lucia. The highlight there was a two-mile tram ride through the rain forest canopy. Birds were few and far between other than Purple-throated Caribs, Antillean Crested Hummingbirds
and a soaring Broad-winged Hawk. At the end of the tram, we went on a short hike and turned up a pair of delightful St. Lucia Warblers, an island endemic. A thrilling sighting! We also found Black-faced Grassquits and Lesser Antillean Bullfinches.
Our next stop was Barbados. Our target there was another island endemic, the Barbados Bullfinch. Several were feeding on the property of the historic St. James Parish Church, a stop on our driving tour.
Other birds seen on our route were Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets and tons of Carib
The following day took us to Guadeloupe. Most of our land
excursion involved visiting open-air markets in crowded villages so birding was limited. We did visit a peninsula with several offshore pinnacles. I was able to pick out three White-tailed Tropicbirds just offshore. Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds were part of the show as well.
Antigua was next on the itinerary. From the dock, dozens of Great Egrets could be seen at a roost in the mangroves. Walking in the town of St. John’s yielded Common Ground-Doves and tons of Carib Grackles. Common Moorhens
and a Green Heron were at the Nevis Street Wetland.
We briefly visited Frederikstet, St. Croix for our last island stop. St. Croix was hard-hit by hurricanes so our land excursion was only a walk through the town. We did find two Ospreys, an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and a “calico” Little Blue Heron.
In the middle of January, my wife, two other couples and I made a 12-day trip to Costa Rica, following by a few months the billions of North American birds that migrated south for the winter.
Waiting to pick up our rental van near the San José Airport, we saw some birds flitting in a few trees adjacent to the building. And our first birds of our trip were . . . . Chestnut-sided Warblers, Tennessee Warblers and a bright male Baltimore Oriole. Not the exotic tropical species were we expecting!
Those three species were the first of many Neotropical migrants we would see on our trip. We tend to think of Chestnut-sided Warblers and Baltimore Orioles as “our” North American birds. But they spend less of the year in North America than they do in tropical areas. We get them on loan for the breeding season.
We spent our first night at the Hotel Bougainvillea, north of the airport. The ten acres of gardens there were delightful for a pre-breakfast bird walk. Clay-colored Thrushes, the national bird of Costa Rica, were common. Other highlights were Lesson’s Motmots, Crimson-ringed Parakeets and some old friends, three Yellow Warblers.
On to the La Selva Biological Station in northeastern Costa Rica, a center of rain forest research in the New World tropics. We took advantage of the extensive trail system there for a glorious three days.
Neotropical migrants included Broad-winged Hawks, House Wrens, Wood Thrushes, abundant Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Summer Tanagers.
Toucans were abundant, loud and easy to see. We found three species: Yellow-fronted Toucan, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari.
We saw small flocks of Great Green Macaws in flight several times and once had the delight of watching two perched macaws through a spotting scope. Fewer than 300 individuals of this species exist today.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Steely-vented Hummingbirds were the most common hummers. We also had great looks at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar. This woodpecker relative has a long, thin bill for capturing insects on the wing. It looks like a giant hummingbird!
We had the pleasure of seeing a number of Green Ibis. They are so different from the Glossy Ibis that nest along the southern Maine coast. Glossies are rather quiet birds, sedately probing in the mud with their long decurved bills.
Green Ibises like to perch in treetops and they are extremely vocal, giving an accelerating hooting call. They are most active at dawn and dusk.
Numerous species of tanagers delighted us, each gaudy and spectacular in its own way. But sometimes, an understated appearance can be the most beautiful. For me, that applies to the Snowy Cotingas we saw: white (male) or light gray(female) feathering with a dark eye and bill. Stunning birds!
We had long looks at a perched Rufous Motmot. Another beautiful bird with subtle coloration.
Birds of prey included a Semiplumbeous Hawk, a Gray-headed Kite and a Laughing Falcon (whose call really does sound like a person laughing).
On our final afternoon at La Selva, we signed up for a boat tour of the Rio Sarapiquí that flows through La Selva.
Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Great Blue Herons and Little Blue Herons were foraging on the banks. Most of the swallows wheeling overhead were familiar Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Some had gray rumps indicating a different species, Southern Rough-winged Swallows. A few Mangrove Swallows with their blue-green upperparts were mixed in.
Our guide spied a well-hidden Green Kingfisher, only 7.5 inches in length. A delightful imp! We also had a good view of the much larger Amazon Kingfisher.
We had a brief view of a soaring bird that came back into view for a good look. It was a King Vulture. We knew it was a particularly good sighting because our tour guide was so excited to see it.
We saw several Anhingas as well.
We departed westward from the tropical rain forests in La Selva to higher elevation. En route, we passed many cow pastures with Cattle Egrets, Great-tailed Grackles and an occasional Crested Caracara consorting with the bovines.
Ultimately, we arrived at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The lodge is at the base of the Arenal Volcano, the youngest and most active volcano in Costa Rica. Standing nearly, 5,400 feet high, this cone-shaped volcano is a wonder to behold. Steam and other gases emanate from several craters. The last eruption was in 2010.
The lodge has an expansive deck with chairs with a full view of the volcano. It’s also a great platform for birding. A fig tree only 30 feet away is a magnet for many fruit-eating birds. The lodge staff also puts out fruit on a large feeder to attract birds.
The highlight was the diversity of tanagers, each seemingly more colorful and beautiful than the next. You can get an idea of the colors from the names: Blue-gray Tanager, Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Green Honeycreeper and my favorite, the Bay-headed Tanager.
Montezuma’s Oropendolas, large members of the blackbird family, were abundant. The males continually performed their bow display.
From a perch on a branch, a male rotates on the perch to put its head down and tail sticking up, all the while giving a distinctive, loud metallic gurgle.
From the deck we had great looks at a Great Curassow, a distinctive ground-dwelling bird as well as a Black-and-white Becard.
Delightful long-nosed coatis, a raccoon relative, roamed around in small packs.
We hired a guide to take us on an early morning bird walk along some of the many trails and roads of the Lodge property. The highlight was a Yellow-eared Toucanet. Our guide had not seen one at Arenal in over a year. Other goodies included a Laughing Falcon, a Violet-headed Hummingbird, Blue-black Grosbeaks and a Black-cowled Oriole.
We departed Arenal for three days in Monteverde, one of the most popular birding sites in Costa Rica. This area has some large tracts of cloud forest with a distinctive bird fauna.
We hired a guide for a morning walk. Usually the cloud forest is foggy with water dripping from the trees. For our walk, the weather was clear and dry.
We enjoyed the beautiful songs of Ochraceous Wrens and Gray-breasted Wood Wrens, eventually getting a good look at each. An Azure-hooded Jay gave us great looks. Slate-throated Redstarts, mostly yellow and black, darted around at eye-level.
We heard the dry trill of a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, a small songbird that mostly forages on the forest floor. Our guide told us that seeing one of these birds is extremely difficult.
The highlight of the walk was a sighting of a male Resplendent Quetzal. The male we saw was perched in the top of an avocado tree, calmly digesting a meal of avocados.
The word spread quickly about the quetzal and many tour groups converged. Everyone got a good view through a spotting scope. With an iridescent emerald-green head, back and chest, red belly and a long tail with green and white feathers, this species is the most beautiful bird I have ever seen. The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala as well as the name of their currency.
We also had a fine look at a Lesson’s Motmot high overhead.
Some of us went on an afternoon walk on our own. I saw a bird flitting about on the ground. It was a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. I was ecstatic!
At the Café Calibri just outside the reserve, hummingbirds visit the many feeders hanging there. We saw seven species including the stunning Violet Sabrewing and Green Hermit. Bananaquits, currently classified into the tanager family, competed for their chance at the sugar water.
This column is the second of the two recounting some of the birding my wife and I did in South Carolina in January.
After a couple of productive days in the Beaufort area, described in the first column, we headed north to Charleston. We had a great morning at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center near Ravenel off of U.S. 17. This area is a park of 654 acres. The area was previously three rice plantations and is now managed strictly for wildlife. With a mix of old rice fields, natural wetlands and forest, Caw Caw hosts a diversity of birds and other animals. A series of trails offers access to different habitats. In short, Caw Caw is a gem.
It was a bit chilly by South Carolina standards when we were there (low 40s) and bird activity was low. Nonetheless, we compiled a nice list. Highlights included a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks, two raucous Red-shouldered Hawks, three Tree Swallows, a Common Yellowthroat among the hordes of Yellow-rumped Warblers, three Chipping Sparrows and several alligators sunning themselves on the banks of a canal.
Our birding in the Charleston area was mainly in the adjacent town of Mount Pleasant. A walk along the board walk at Shem Creek Park yield a Bufflehead, six Horned Grebes, four Great Egrets, three Snowy Egrets, two Tricolored Herons and a stunning adult male Northern Harrier.
A trip to Fort Moultrie was interesting historically as well as ornithologically. The sheltered water had Buffleheads, Horned Grebes, many Brown Pelicans and a Great Blue Heron. We were rewarded for our patience as we birded the dense thickets behind the interpretative center. Birds seen included one each of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird as well as a flock of 30 Cedar Waxwings.
We toured the Fort, which affords a view of the open ocean. The sea was angry that day picking out birds on the water was difficult.
We continued on to the small fishing village of McClellanville, just a bit south of Georgetown. We visited friends there for nearly a week. We went birding every day but I will cover just two of our excursions.
The first trip was to Tibwin Plantation in Francis Marion National Forest. Access is off Highway 17 just a bit south of McClellanville. A walk of perhaps a mile through longleaf pine forest leads to a large freshwater impoundment with an observation blind. What a treat this area was. A number of ducks were spooked by our arrival but we enjoyed great looks at Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal. Two Pied-billed Grebes and lots of Double-crested Cormorants were present as well.
The impoundment had some mudflats with six Western Sandpipers and three Short-billed Dowitchers. Over 40 Greater Yellowlegs foraged in shallow water.
Two Belted Kingfishers announced their presence with loud rattles. A Red-tailed Hawk and then a Bald Eagle flew right over our heads.
The highlight of the trip was a flock of American White Pelicans. In my experience, seeing a few of these pelicans along the coast in South Carolina is expected. I did not expect to see the 55 American White Pelicans we saw at Tibwin Plantation! The light was perfect on these birds with their bright yellow bills and gular pouches.
Unlike Brown Pelicans that dive for fish, swimming American White Pelicans cooperatively herd fish into shallow water where they can be scooped up. It was great to see that behavior.
A three-mile hike through the Santee Coastal Reserve north of McClellanville produced a nice list. We found an Anhinga, six American Coots, two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Marsh Wren, two Carolina Wrens, both species of kinglets, six Swamp Sparrows and two Red-winged Blackbirds.
If you are planning a trip to South Carolina, an excellent birding resource is:
My wife and I had the pleasure of spending ten days in coastal South Carolina in the middle of January, 2015. The birding and the temperature were great.
We flew into Charleston. The first birds we saw were dozens of Boat-tailed Grackles foraging on the grass adjacent to the landing strip.
We departed south from the airport to the delightful town of Beaufort. It’s a town of about 12,000 with lots of wonderful antebellum architecture. Beaufort has also provided the location for a lot of movies including The Big Chill, The Great Santini, Forest Gump, GI Jane and Platoon. The birding was excellent as well.
Our first excursion was to Hunting Island State Park, a large, elongate tract of land. As we drove into the park, we saw a gathering of white herons, foraging in a shallow pool. Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets were outnumbered by a dozen first-year Little Blue Herons in their white plumage. An adult Little Blue Heron and a Great Blue Heron provided some contrast.
A boardwalk onto the marsh yielded at least five Clapper Rails, calling vigorously. We were never able to see one of these secretive birds. A Willet was a nice find.
Continuing to the tip of the island, we visited the informative Visitors Center. Scoping from the pier yielded a mixed flock of loafing birds: 20 Laughing Gulls, 15 Forster’s Terns, ten Royal Terns, 20 Brown Pelicans and 10 Double-crested Cormorants.
We hiked about half a mile to the exposed beach. Erosion has been extensive in this area. A number of magnificent live oaks were corpses, killed by the encroaching ocean. An observation tower formerly well above the tide line now rises from the middle part of the intertidal zone. We found three Red-breasted Mergansers beyond the breakers and four Northern Gannets flew quite close to shore, affording us wonderful looks.
We found a mixed flock of songbirds in the pine woods on the way back including a Red-bellied Woodpecker, an Eastern Bluebird, a Pine Warbler and several Yellow-rumped Warblers.
The following day, we checked out the Port Royal Boardwalk. A Horned Grebe, two Bufflehead, ten Double-crested Cormorant and tons of Brown Pelicans were on the water. The marsh held a Tricolored Heron as well as both egrets. A Killdeer flew overhead, calling vigorously. A small flock of shorebirds was aggregated on a small spit of sand. We found two Willets, a dozen Ruddy Turnstones and four Dunlin there.
The adjacent woodlands produced two Palm Warblers along with tens of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Northern Mockingbird and a Northern Cardinal.
We headed north and spent a pleasant few hours at the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area near Green Pond just off Route 17. This highly diverse area offers both wetland and upland habitats including managed rice fields, salt marsh, agricultural lands and a number of forest types. It is managed for both game and for habitat for non-game wildlife.
An 11-mile tour covers the WMA pretty well. We found the land birding pretty slow but I can imagine that the forests must be hopping with birds during the spring and summer.
The wetlands here most many alligators. Always a treat to see. We also found 4 Pied-billed Grebes, a dozen Northern Shovelers, two Great Blue Herons, four Great Egrets, two Snowy Egrets and four Wood Storks. Eight Greater Yellowlegs were foraging in the shallows of a pond. In a marshy area, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a coot. We managed to see the bird finally and it was a Common Gallinule, the first we’ve seen in many years.
Raptors included an American Kestrel and a Red-tailed Hawk. As usual, Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures were almost always in sight overhead. On to the Charleston area in the next post.
This post concludes the description of a trip my wife and I took to northwestern Wyoming in the first week of July. Today, I’ll discuss our visits to two National Parks.
On July 2, we drove north from Jackson to the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park. This national park, encompassing an area of over 3,400 square miles, was signed into law by President U.S. Grant in 1872. Yellowstone is regarded as the first wildlife park ever created.
Bets and I had never visited Yellowstone before so we were anxious to broadly sample the amazing biological and geological wonders in the park. We drove north for about 20 miles to the Visitor Center at Grant Village. The rangers monitor the eruptions of Old Faithful and post information on the timing of the next eruption.. The next one was predicted around 11 AM. We had 45 minutes to drive the 17 miles to this famous geyser. We arrived about 10 minutes before Old Faithful erupted and it was a particularly large eruption.
Old Faithful is just one of 300 geysers in Yellowstone. Hot springs, pools and ponds abound on the western side of park. We drove north from Old Faithful with steam rising all along the road between Old Faithful and Madison.
The density of geysers was dwarfed by the density of automobiles. This stretch of Yellowstone attracts many tourists. We quickly realized birding was going to be next to impossible along the busy road.
We did take a short loop, Firehole Lake Drive, that provided some opportunities for birding. We stopped at a hot spring with water actually boiling. We learned that trappers used to cook their meat or fish by simply immersing it into one of those boiling springs.
While we were admiring the spring, we heard a Red Crossbill giving its jip-jip flight call overhead. A little further down the road, we found Killdeer, Mountain Bluebirds and White-crowned Sparrows. We saw a raptor through the trees and ultimately got a nice look at an adult Golden Eagle.
We decided to head south in search of better birding opportunities. Along the way, a male bison was fairly close to the road, affording us great looks at this magnificent species.
Exiting Yellowstone and entering Grand Teton National Park, we stopped at the Oxbow Bend Turnout. The highlight for us was a great look at four White Pelicans. We also found 120 Canada Geese, a Mallard, three Common Mergansers and four Double-crested Cormorants. Many Violet-green Swallows were hawking insects above us.
Just a few miles south on Highway 89, we stopped at the Elk Ranch Flats Turnout. Several hundred bison were there with quite a few new-born calves. We also saw a dozen Pronghorns. Savannah Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks were singing. A nice way to end a great day with nature.
On July 3, we explored the southern portion of Grant Teton National Park. From Teton Village, we entered the park at the Granite Canyon entrance and drove northward toward the Visitors Center in Moose. This road is not heavily traveled and pull-outs are present so stopping for birds is possible.
New additions to our trip list included White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Wilson’s Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.
We stopped at the new Visitors Center in Moose. This center is fantastic. We really enjoyed the informative 25-minute film on the biology, geology and history of the Teton range.
We continued our expedition to Jenny Lake. We took a shuttle boat across the lake to the trailhead for Hidden Falls. The half-mile trail involves a bit of effort and elevational gain but the beauty of the falls is worth the effort. The mist from the falls provided welcome cooling.
Our bird list included Osprey, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Swainson’s Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Tanager, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and Cassin’s Finch.
My wife and I recently had the pleasure of a short trip to the Jackson Hole area in northwestern Wyoming. The town of Jackson is the jumping-off point for two of the crown jewels of the National Park System: Yellowstone National Park and Grant Teton National Park.
Jackson Hole is the relatively flat valley between the Teton Mountains and the Snake River. Access to the valley requires descending fairly steep slopes, giving early trappers the sensation of entering a hole. Jackson Hole is about 6,000 feet above sea level.
Arriving late on June 30, we opted to explore the local area around Jackson on July 1. We began by driving east from our hotel in Teton Village to the Wilson area. Brewer’s Blackbirds were common. Violet-Green Swallows were the most abundant of the four swallows we saw, the others being Tree, Barn and Cliff Swallows. Black-billed Magpies were delightful to see.
Heading east on Fall Creek Road in Wilson, we saw several Ospreys, most nesting atop power poles. A Sandhill Crane was foraging in a marsh adjacent to Fish Creek. Wooded areas produced Northern Flickers (the red-shafted form), Western Wood-Pewees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, abundant Yellow Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows. Fish Creek produced a Wood Duck, a pair of Green-winged Teal and a Bald Eagle.
We headed south on Route 22 to the Teton Pass at an elevation of 8,431 feet. A lovely trail right at the peak of the pass winds through some coniferous forest before opening up into an alpine meadow with a mosaic of colors. The flowers along the trail were truly stunning.
In the firs, Cassin Finches sang their Purple Finch-like songs. Dark-eyed Juncos were common and we saw a Chipping Sparrow as well. A couple of American Robins and quite a few Pine Siskins were present.
We heard a song that sounded like an Indigo Bunting. Perched in the top of a tree was a Lazuli Bunting, a species that gives the Indigo Bunting a run for its money in terms of beauty.
The abundance of Common Ravens fit the name with a few American Crows present as well. From the forest below, we heard the “quick three beers” call of an Olive-sided Flycatcher.
The trail crested at a small stand of spruce and fir with a few standing dead trees present. These trees had a pair of Mountain Bluebirds and a male Western Tanager. Rather than retracing our steps to the parking lot, we opted to follow a Forest Service road back to our car. Along the way, a Western Kingbird appeared. A Hermit Thrush favored us with its flute-like song and a Red-tailed Hawk screamed unseen.
We then drove north on Route 22 back toward Jackson. We stopped at a small pond (Skyline Pond) on the east side of the road. This marshy pond had Mallards, Gadwall, a Redhead and an American Coot with many chicks swimming around her. Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds sang from the cattails.
After a lunch in Jackson, we drove north on Route 89. Just beyond the town proper, a pullout on the east side of the road affords an excellent view of the National Elk Refuge. In the fall, hundreds of elk descend from the mountains to this area to winter and feed on the grasses. No elk were present while we there but many birds were present in the marsh adjacent to the grassland. We found Gadwall, Ring-necked Ducks, Canada Geese and a pair of Trumpeter Swans. The presence of a Belted Kingfisher was given away by its loud rattle-like call. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were common.
We spent most of the rest of the afternoon exploring the sagebrush flats north of Jackson. Our list included American Kestrel, Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Sage Thrasher, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow and Green-tailed Towhee.
On to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the next post.
You may have read my post from last spring in which I described a wonderful trip I took to the Galápagos Islands in March 2010. Along with my colleague Sarah Gibbs, we took a class of 24 Colby students to those wonderful islands. I was able to visit two islands that I had not visited earlier.
We flew from Quito to the airport on San Cristóbal. The immigration line extended out of the small terminal. That wait allowed us to watch a pair of Cactus Finches building a nest in a large cactus adjacent to the terminal. The Cactus Finch is one of 13 species of Darwin’s finches, found only in the Galápagos.
We took a bus ride into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town on San Cristóbal, and checked into our hotel. A Chatham Mockingbird was perched on the windowsill of my room. Four endemic mockingbirds occur on the Galápagos and the Chatham Mockingbird is only known from San Cristóbal.
That afternoon, we took a long hike along the coast to some highlands. Both Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds were nesting near the tops of some cliffs. Small Ground Finches and Medium Ground Finches were common. Along the shore, we saw Lava Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Striated Herons, Ruddy Turnstones, hundreds of Galápagos Sea Lions and many Marine Iguanas.
The next morning, we boarded a couple of boats for the two-hour crossing to the islands of Santa Cruz. Along the way, Galápagos Shearwaters and Eliot’s Storm-Petrels were common.
Our first stop on Santa Cruz was the Charles Darwin Research Station where captive breeding of Galápagos tortoises is ensuring the survival of these behemoths. On the grounds, we saw Large Ground Finches, Small Ground Finches, Galápagos Flycatchers and Galápagos Mockingbirds (this mockingbird is found on a number of the Galápagos Islands).
After lunch, we visited Los Gemelos (the twins), two massive depressions at higher altitude. We were treated to several gorgeous Galápagos Doves, Warbler Finches and a fly-by Dark-billed Cuckoo. We had a look at a perched cuckoo and a Smooth-billed Ani later in the day when we visited some lava tunnels tall enough to easily walk through.
We had an early start the next day for a cruise to the extremely arid island of Bartholomé. The sea was calm and the day was sunny. From the boat, we saw Eliot’s Storm-Petrels, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Nazca Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddies and massive flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes. We saw several Swallow-tailed Gulls perched on the cliffs of Daphne Major when we sailed close by this small island. Manta Rays occasionally jumped out of the water for memorable views.
On Bartholomé, we saw Lava Herons, American Oystercatchers and lots of Blue-footed Boobies. A Galápagos Hawk soared over the island and was later perched at the pinnacle of the island. Snorkeling provided views of a diversity of fish as well as sea turtles.
We returned to Santa Cruz, exhausted but exhilarated. The following morning we were back on boats to the island of Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago. Approaching from the south, this island had a distinctly different feel. The sand was white, not gray as we had seen on other islands. Mangroves ringed the shoreline and the water was a beautiful blue-green. I could have been convinced I was in the Caribbean except for the fact there were Galápagos Penguins swimming around the boat and dock! We later got to see a number of penguins and Blue-footed Boobies up close and personal.
A bus excursion that afternoon included a stop at a large lagoon where American Flamingoes, White-cheeked Pintails and Common Moorhens were feeding. The flamingoes were magnificent!
The next morning we boarded an open-air bus to the trail head for Cerro Negro, one of the five major volcanoes on Isabela. Cerro Negro was last active in 2005. Our ultimate goal was to climb Volcán Chico, a parasitic volcano on the side of Cierro Negro. The hike was a round-trip of 12 miles.
The views of the caldera of Cerro Negro were amazing; the caldera is about seven miles across and we could see where the lava from the 2005 eruption had killed some of the vegetation in the caldera.
Small Tree-Finches and Large Tree-Finches were seen along the hike to Cerro Negro. Vermilion Flycatchers cooperated nicely for everyone in the class. A few of us got to see Galápagos Martins, hawking insects over the caldera.
This column is the second of two on my recent trip to Ecuador. The first column detailed some of the highlights of a visit to Amazonia. In this column, I will cover our three-day excursion to the Galápagos Islands.
A visit to the Galápagos has been a dream of mine for a long time. Charles Darwin visited these shores in 1835 on his around the world cruise on the H.M.S. Beagle. His experiences with Galápagos mockingbirds, tortoises and finches were instrumental in his development of the theory of natural selection. To see these animals and to walk the same land that Darwin trod was a tremendous thrill.
Our group flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, 500 miles west to the Galápagos archipelago. We landed on the small island of Baltra. A U.S. Air Force base was established there during World War II and now serves as one of two commercial airports in the Galápagos.
After clearing security and paying the required $100 visitor’s fee, we boarded a bus for a short ride to a ferry dock. The passenger ferry took us just a few hundred yards to the large island of Santa Cruz, one of the four human-inhabited islands.
Brown Noddies (a type of tern), Brown Pelicans and Audubon’s Shearwaters flew above the water as we motored across the narrow channel.
Boarding another bus, we worked our way south towards the town of Puerto Ayora where we would spend three nights.
Our first stop enroute was Los Gemelos (The Twins), two huge volcanic depressions in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Admiring one of these two sinkholes, I noticed a bird out of the corner of my eye. It was a Warbler Finch, one of the 13 species collectively referred to as Darwin’s finches. Within a few minutes, we had seen four others: Woodpecker Finch, Large Ground-Finch, Small Ground-Finch and Medium Ground-Finch. I was thrilled!
With few natural predators, the animals of the Galápagos are well known for their fearlessness. As our group stood around one of Los Gemelos, a Galápagos Dove perched only feet away from us. This species is widespread in the archipelago but is declining. Our tour guide told us we were lucky to see this species. It is really a striking bird.
The dominant trees belong to the genus Scalesia and are members of the sunflower family. Without seeing the flowers, I would never have suspected the Scalesia are related to our daisies.
Our next stop was Rancho Primacia. A walk through this reserve yielded our first Galápagos tortoises as well as White-
cheeked Pintails, Galápagos Mockingbird, Yellow Warblers (the males have red feathers on their head) and a Common Moorhen.
The following day, we boarded a boat for a trip to Floreana, a two-hour cruise from Puerto Ayora. We saw Nazca Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Audubon’s Shearwaters and
Elliot’s Storm-Petrel during the crossing. Arriving at Floreana, we saw Galápagos sea lions and marine iguanas on the rocks near the dock.
We boarded a bus for transport to the highlands of the island. I was particularly keen to see the Medium Tree-Finch, endemic to this island, but was skunked. We did see lots of tortoises, Galápagos Flycatchers and a brief glimpse of a Galápagos Hawk.
We cruised to Devil’s Crown, a rocky outcrop just offshore. Two Galápagos Penguins were perched on the shore with a Swallow-tailed Gull close by. A Great Blue Heron was roosting there as well.
On Devil’s Crown, many Blue-footed Boobies and Nazca Boobies were roosting. A couple of spectacular Red-billed Tropicbirds circled the boat.
The next day we sailed north for three hours to the small island of Bartholomé, adjacent to the large island of Santiago. Bartholomé is a young island, a little less than a million years old. The soil is very poor; plants are sparse and well adapted to the arid environment here. Geologically, Bartholomé is fascinating with lava tubes and magma formations. Ornithologically, the island has little to offer so no new species were added to our list. The snorkeling just offshore was spectacular with many fish species and sea turtles seen.
On our final morning, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora. Walking in, we saw our last
Darwin’s finch species of the trip, Common Cactus-Finch.
At the institute, eggs of the 13 species of Galápagos tortoises are incubated and the young turtles raised for five years before release into their original habitat where the eggs were collected. We saw Lonesome George, the last member of his species, found only on the small island of Pinta.