Archive for Birds

The Panama Hawk Migration

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Panama City from atop the Canopy Tower.  It reminded me of the Emerald City of Oz.

We traveled to Panama in early October mainly for the hawk migration, but there were many other fascinating sights such as the Three-toed Tree Sloths munching on the Cecropia leaves outside our window.

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We stayed at Canopy Tower an old converted US Military radar installation.  The food was excellent with menus prepared by the owner’s Mother (?) who was a well known chef.  We came back from one day’s outing to find the remnants of that cuisine being sampled by seven juvenile Coatis.  They didn’t mind in the least if we watched them and they were relatively respectful of each other, unlike their cousins the Raccoons..

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It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip bird-wise as well with my eBird total of 195 species.  There were beautiful insects with Blue Morpho butterflies fluttering everywhere.  I also encountered a creature completely new to me, a Helicopter Damselfly (Megaloprepus caerulatus).  It was lovely at rest but absolutely mesmerizing in flight, twirling delicately down the path (click on the name for a link to a short video)

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Here is the Helicopter Damselfly at rest.  It is huge, about 7″ long and with a similar wingspan.  (Photo courtesy of Christine Howe, all rights reserved)

But of course the hawk migration was the primary reason for our visit.  We drove to Ancon Hill where the official Panama hawk watch is held.  We were told that almost no hawks had come through on the previous day but they had heard from Veracruz, Mexico that they should expect large influx were due this day.  We saw very few at first but then they started rising from the canopy and flying in from the west.  They gathered and rose swirling (kettling) until they reached the top of the thermal and then slid off to the east.  We were told that in one half-hour period we had seen approximately 18,000 hawks, mostly Swainson’s Hawks and that every Swainson’s Hawk in North America passes over the Panama Canal on its way to its wintering grounds in Argentina.  I found the experience very calming, watching them floating in, up and on their way, hundreds at a time.

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There are a few Turkey Vultures  and Broadwings but most of these birds are Swainson’s Hawks, a tiny fraction of the spectacle.

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Svalbard 5: Dovekies

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This was the brave one.  I could hear the mate down in the burrow.  The rest kept their distance (sitting maybe 30′ away) and flying close over our heads to investigate.

I know, the trip was in June and it’s now November but I want to share this one last adventure with you.  On our last day there my friend Frank and I decided to climb up a steep scree slope to sit among the nesting Dovekies.  It was thrilling to sit high on the slope with Dovekies calling as they whirled around my head.  I had close looks at them.

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The slope may not look steep but it was.

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The only way I could get down was the “5 point” way, sliding on my butt!  (Photo courtesy of Frank Mantlik)

For me this was the highlight of our trip.  One of my goals was to see nesting Dovkies and we did that in spades.  Thanks, Frank.

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Svalbard 1: Oslo Environs

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We planned our trip to Svalbard by setting aside time on either end for birding on our own.  We hired a local bird guide from the Oslo area to take us to his favorite spots for a day and it was well worth the effort.  He took us to the outskirts of the city where there is a large lake (the Nordre Oyeren Naturreservat) and then to other several other hot spots.  By the time we finished we had compiled a list of about 65 species, including 28 life birds.  While these birds were all interesting one bird stood out.  We were hiking near the lake and a beautiful chicken started to follow us.  With its striking plumage and white rump patch, it looked to me exactly like the  Red Jungle Fowl, ancestor of domestic chickens that we have occasionally  encountered in our travels, living wild in the jungle.  I finally have had a chance to research it and have decided that it must have been a Sicilian Buttercup.  This bird was very vocal and followed us for some distance.  He was probably an escape from someone’s chicken collection.  He gets the name Buttercup because of the shape of his comb, which is cup shaped.

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The next morning we left Oslo and most vegetation behind and headed to the arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

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Big Bend (Yes, Again…!)

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I know I’ve often written about Big Bend NP in Texas but I keep getting pulled back there.  Compelling landscape, good friends and wonderful birds:  what’s not to like?  This visit followed much the same pattern as the others except we had managed to secure coveted Stone Cottage 103.  Cottage 103 comes with a suite of guests; Mexican Jays, White-winged Doves, Green-tailed Towhee, Black-crested Titmice, Canyon Towhees and an extremely friendly Gray Fox.  He/she was obviously looking for a handout, which is against park rules for good reason.  We resisted the temptation to share our happy hour tidbits and the fox did not return, but for a magical hour or so, we had this gorgeous animal as our guest.  It first sat on the porch wall but then went and curled up like a cat beside the porch.  What a treat to be so close as to be able to scrutinize a fox from a distance of a few feet.  I know this ease with humans comes from others disregarding park rules and feeding it.  I can only hope such misplaced generosity doesn’t spell its eventual doom.

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Madagascar 4: The Rain Forest

We went from the Spiny Forest, climbing through terraced rice paddies to reach the rain forest.  This ever dwindling natural resource of dramatically different habitats is brimming with still more unique species like geckos and chameleons.  It took quite a while to pick out this Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko until he moved.

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Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko

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Up and about

Much of our exploration was through challenging terrain with long drives in 4 wheel drive vehicles on horrible roads to begin our hikes into the forest.  Those hikes were physically arduous but the rewards were great:

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Like this Collared Nightjar – a bird’s nest in a bird’s nest fern,

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a Giraffe Beetle,

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Jewel-like pill bugs,

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a Madagascar Malachite Swallowtail and

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A Paradise Flycatcher nest with babies.

Plus there were all the frogs, snakes and more birds, not to mention more lemurs like the Indri, with their haunting calls.

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An Indri family group.  You can hear their calls at this link from Wikipedia

Near the end of our trip we had lunch beside this lovely forest pond where we enjoyed watching endemic waterbirds; a family of Madagascar Little Grebes and a pair of Meller’s Ducks.  A day or two later I was finally struck down by Madagascar’s “travelers complaint,” an ailment that had hit the rest of the group earlier.  I was fairly incapacitated after this, getting home on Imodium and finally resorting to Cipro (a must for anyone contemplating this wonderful adventure).  This trip is full of sights everyone needs to see.  Beside the amazing wildlife, there are lessons here on so many levels, especially on the effects of our misuse of natural resources because we put immediate human needs above the future of our environment.  This is a lesson we need to heed right here at home.

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Lunch by the pond

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Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom with the Connecticut Young Birders Club

Young Birders clowning around at the end of the boardwalk at Moose Bog.  (We all did quite a bit of clowning around on this fun trip.)

Young Birders clowning around at the end of the boardwalk at Moose Bog. (We all did quite a bit of clowning around on this fun trip.)

I accompanied the Young Birders to the very top of Vermont at the end of June and what a great time we had!  We camped out for two nights at friendly, welcoming Pond Island’s Brighton State Park while we explored the region’s birding hot spots, spending most of our time at Moose Bog.  We never saw a moose, but it was a beautiful bog and it was there that we got our birding “Boreal Grand Slam,” the Black-backed Woodpecker (life bird for me), Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee.  A birder has to travel north to see these birds.

Chris Rimmer and a Bicknell's Thrush.

Chris Rimmer and a Bicknell’s Thrush.

After our stay we moved south to Mount Mansfield, camping an additional night at Smuggler’s Notch State Park.  There we rode the Toll Road (ski trail in winter) to the top of Mount Mansfield where we visited with Chris Rimmer, Executive Director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) and his research assistant .  This is one of the areas in which he studies the rare Bicknell’s Thrush.  We accompanied them along the mist net routes as they extracted birds for examination and banding and were even allowed to assist by releasing the banded birds.  We helped with recording duties, learned a lot about the importance of preserving the entire migratory route, and about VCE’s work in Hispanola and Puerto Rico where Bicknell’s Thrush winter.

One of the Young Birders helps out with the recording process.

One of the Young Birders helps out with the recording process.

Bicknell’s Thrush nests only at the tree line, thus it is found on the highest mountain tops in New England, Southern Canada and the Northern Appalachians.  As the climate warms, the tree line climbs further up the mountain leaving the tiny Thrush an ever decreasing area in which to nest.  Thanks to the work of VCE, we have much more knowledge about this bird, its habitat requirements and threats to its existence.

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Girl’s Weekend (With Puffins, et als)

The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica).  It's hard not to anthropomorphize this bird.  Flying football or Clown of the Sea; they are endearing.

The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). It’s hard not to anthropomorphize this bird. Flying Football or Clown of the Sea; they are endearing.

I got together with three bird banding friends for a girl’s weekend, leaving husbands, children and pets to fend for themselves while we birded north coastal Maine.  Our ringleader had arranged for us to visit Machias Seal Island, a sanctuary for nesting Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Common Murres, Arctic Terns, Common Eiders and Savannah Sparrows.  This proved to be the very most fun of our very fun weekend.

I loved the Puffins but the Common Murres really fascinated me.  I've  not had many opportunities to see them and they've only been breeding here for a few years.  About 10% of the birds we saw were

I loved the Puffins but the Common Murres really fascinated me. I’ve not had many opportunities to see them and they’ve only been breeding here for a few years. About 10% of the birds we saw were “Bridled” having the white eye ring and streak. The non-bridled birds had a crease there, but no white feathering.

Due to the restrictions on visitors (only 15 people at a time) and the popularity of the trip, she had made our reservations several months earlier.  A little risky, but the day was as calm as our Captain Andy had seen all year and the sky was clear.  We set out from Cutler, Maine for the 10 mile trip to the island.  Its ownership is in dispute between the US and Canada but no one asked for our passports, so not a problem for us.  We had a brief orientation next to nesting Arctic Terns and then were taken to blinds in the midst of all the thousands of birds.  The next hour was heaven.  The birds were so close we could almost touch them.  What a thrill to see them going about their daily interactions, oblivious of us, lurking in the blind.  We saw birds enter burrows from time to time but they spent most of the time just loafing on the rocks, seeming to chat with their neighbors.

Razorbills:  I had a chance to see the lovely white markings at close hand.  What a delight!

Razorbills: I had a chance to see the lovely white markings at close hand. What a delight!

This is a trip every birder should consider.  The birds seemed undisturbed by our presence and it was a rare opportunity for a glimpse into their lives without disrupting them.

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