Sunday, May 30, 2010

Welcome to the Hotel....Pennsylvania?!

Henslow’s Sparrow, Mourning Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, White-eyed Vireo. Do I have your attention yet? I saw all these birds and many more on my trip back east last week. Where, exactly? Some famous hotspot, surely.

Well, not exactly--the Holiday Inn Express in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Huh?

I always manage to transform "nonbirding" trips into birding trips. It has become tradition to strike out on foot from the hotel and see what birds are around. I’ve marauded around hotel parking lots in New Mexico, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, California, and just about everywhere else in the United States. None of my previous hotel experiences, however, can compare to the Holiday Inn Express in Grove City.

My eldest brother’s graduation and subsequent wedding were the reasons for the trip. I was too insignificant to matter much in the wedding preparations, so I found myself with loads of free time on my hands. My options were either to watch television in the room or go birding around the hotel.

What kind of choice is that?

In the few days my family was in Grove City, I put in over twenty-five miles of walking from the hotel. The schedule went something like this: roll out of bed at five-thirty. Grab backpack. Lace boots. Scramble down the stairs, swipe an oatmeal muffin and a slab of jelly toast from the breakfast bar, and head out the door. Then, for the next few hours, stroll down quiet country lanes (with only the occasional Amish buggy or oversized tractor threatening to squash me) looking for birds.

Oh, Highway 208 isn’t really a quiet country lane, but once I got off the main road I was plunged into almost complete solitude.

The quality of the birding was astonishing thanks to the broad suite of habitats within a few miles of the hotel. Many of the highlights of eastern birding came flooding back to me as I explored those back roads-—the snore of a Blue-winged Warbler, a male Blackburnian Warbler flashing through an oak overhead, the melodious jumbled song of a Bobolink sailing over a green pasture…

Instead of rambling on with a dry trip report, I'll let the photos do the narrating.

Blackburnian Warbler

American Redstart

Warbling Vireo

Tree Swallow

Prothonotary Warbler--all right, I'll admit it: this actually wasn't from Grove City. I made a brief stop at Crane Creek in Ohio mid-week. The birding was mediocre, but I enjoyed stellar looks at this male Prothonotary Warbler hopping within feet of the boardwalk.

Gray Catbird--the area around the hotel was crawling with catbirds. Brushy areas abounded, and there seemed to be a catbird every fifty feet or so.

Northern Parula

Scarlet Tanager

Red-eyed Vireo

Green Heron


Baltimore Oriole

American Robins--surely one of the most common and familiar species in North America. Sadly, they aren't as common in California as they are in Pennsylvania. I would see hundreds in a few miles of walking.

Spotted Sandpiper nest--I was tromping around in a grassy area near a small lake when I flushed an adult sitting on the nest.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Texas Photos

Yup, my previous posts about my Texas trip have been photo-free for a reason--I'm saving them up until the end! Here is a Red-headed Woodpecker from the Jasper Fish Hatchery.

My long-overdue lifer American Snout (Libytheana carinenta), a common butterfly in the South that I'd somehow never seen before.

One of the most iconic birds of Texas, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. They were common, but always managed to stay pretty far away...

A Prothonotary Warbler on territory at Martin Dies Jr. State Park. One of the better warblers out there.

Indigo Buntings were one of the most common migrants. We saw a few flocks of over twenty!

Birding the Texas coast isn't just about passerine migration--the marshes and beaches are full of all sorts of waterbirds. One of the biggest attractions at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is the abundance of very visible King Rails.

This Summer Tanager at High Island was too exhausted to move out of the trail. It seemed sick, and was missing an eye. It probably died, even though some birders were tossing it mulberries to eat.

Yes, alligators were common, though I never got the chance to wrestle with one. This particular bruiser was patrolling the waters below the wader rookery at Smith Oaks, hoping for a baby egret would fall out of a nest...

And here's the rookery itself. It was a bustling place, with hundreds of Roseate Spoonbills, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and Neotropic Cormorants flying around and stuff.

Eastern Kingbirds were common breeders near my old house in Michigan, so I was delighted to see them in abundance once again.

One of the last birds of the trip--a Painted Bunting! While stopped at a gas station on the way to Houston, someone noticed a male Painted Bunting lying on the sidewalk below the gas station window. It had obviously flown into the window and was stunned. After photographing it extensively, we caught it and transferred it under some nearby bushes so the many grackles wandering around the place wouldn't kill it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Nifty Nighthawks

One of my favorite things to do during the summer is to ride the several miles over to the far eastern end of Irvine Regional Park at dusk and watch the Lesser Nighthawks swooping against the delicate pink and blue sky as the songbirds give their last chips and songs of the day. Seeing nighthawks during the day, however, is a much more difficult task.

Irvine Park has a lot more than nighthawks to offer--which is why I was there for several hours this morning. As I was crossing the wash, however, I flushed two large, long-winged birds from under the scrub. I was momentarily baffled until I saw the flashing white bars at the ends of their wings. Nighthawks! During the day! One of the birds disappeared up the wash on its bounding wingbeats, but the other settled about fifteen feet away. Seeing one on the ground during the day was a treat! I've never had such good looks at this species.

The nighthawks were a relief from an otherwise average morning. My all-too brief foray to Texas really spoiled migration back at home. California migration is really put to shame when compared with High Island. A Hermit Warbler, two Warbling Vireos, four Wilson's Warblers, and several Western Tanagers were the only migrants I could turn up in several hours of birding.

Of course, the resident species are always fun to see, too. Acorn Woodpeckers always make me laugh! A morning of birding beats a morning of school any day!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Big Day (Part II of II)

Birding Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. From left to right: Spencer Hardy, Neil Gilbert, Charles Hesse, Harold Eyster, Andy Johnson, Marcel Such. Photo by Chip Clouse.

1500 hours

Afternoons are generally less productive than mornings for birds, yet we are still racking up the birds. We did not pass the one hundred mark until past noon, but in slightly less than three hours of afternoon birding we have found over sixty new species!


Most of the morning was spent either tracking down breeding passerines in the Piney Woods or sitting in the car scanning for raptors and trying not to fall asleep. Dozens of new species awaited us on the Bolivar Peninsula. The first few minutes at Rollover Pass were exciting, indeed—terns! plovers! gulls! herons!

Now, however, we are cleaning up. Standing on the edge of Frenchtown Road, we scan the shorebird-laden ponds for uncommon species. “TEXAS TRUCK!” someone yells. We hurriedly shuffle farther off the road as the oversized pickup roars by. Returning my eye to the scope, I pick through the ranks of dowitchers and Dunlin, hoping for a…

“Hey, can I borrow the scope for a sec? I think I see a Baird’s,” I quickly surrender the scope to Andy, who zeroes in on a sandpiper the rest of us had passed over. “Yup—Baird’s!” We cluster around the scope, each peeking through for a second before moving aside so the next teammate can see it.

“Baird’s—good!” our British mentor Charley Hesse exclaims. “We need to be getting to High Island…”

1800 hours

High Island. If you are a birder, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s famous.

We are finding out exactly why as we frantically chase new birds as the daylight fades. At times, we barely move at all, too busy picking through the dozens of warblers filtering through the trees to keep walking down the trail. Other times, we sprint down the trail in a ragged pack after that alleged Canada Warbler, or Bay-breasted Warbler, or…

A brilliant male Scarlet Tanager flashes through the mulberry tree just overhead, yet I ignore it. We’ve already seen dozens. Big Days are no time to appreciate birds; the last hour of daylight is particularly hectic. A clump of leaves quivers in a nearby oak—I nail it with my binoculars and am quickly greeted by the flaming orange throat of a male Blackburnian Warbler. I ignore it, too. On any other day, I could spend an hour watching a single Blackburnian Warbler. But today is a Big Day.

Tennessee Warbler…Black-and-white Warbler…Golden-winged Warbler…Baltimore Oriole…Red-eyed Vireo…Magnolia Warbler…Swainson’s Thrush…Blue-headed Vireo…with every new migrant, our list creeps closer to two hundred.

I whip my binoculars to my eyes for perhaps the five hundredth time in the last half-hour. A new face pops out from behind a leaf. “CHESTNUT-SIDED!” I yell. My teammates hustle into position and quickly find the bird. Yet another species added to the list of birds we can ignore for the next six hours.

2100 hours

“Who-who who who, who-who who-WHOOO?” My Barred Owl imitation is so pathetic that we can’t help but laugh. In reality, it’s not that funny—but when you’ve been awake for nineteen hours, almost anything seems funny. Even tripping over a pebble…

I try to whoop again. And once again, it sounds like a gagged tomcat.

My crude imitation is enough to fool (or seriously tick off) the local Barred Owl. Only a couple of us are looking up when it flashes over—a big, blocky bird, the white spots in its wings glowing in the moonlight. It apparently isn’t very impressed, since it remains silent and never reappears.

But it was enough. Two people are enough for it to count.

0000 hours

It’s over. Actually, it ended fifteen minutes ago when we filed up the steps into the Tropical Birding house (our base of operations) at High Island. I lie on the thin, lumpy mattress, joking with my teammates and not even trying to sleep. I’ve been birding nonstop for twenty-two hours, but I do not feel tired. Yet.

I blame those two bowls of ice cream.

It’s over.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Big Day (Part I of II)

The 2010 Great Texas Birding Classic Tropicbirds Team. From left to right...bottom: Spencer Hardy, Chip Clouse (team mentor/driver/cook), Andy Johnson. Middle: Neil Gilbert, Harold Eyster. Top: Marcel Such. Oh yeah, and that's Furious George in the front.

0300 hours

We’ve been awake for an hour, but our bird list stands at only one: a Northern Mockingbird singing across the street from the Tropical Birding house where we were staying at High Island. A fierce wind rips through the treetops at Smith Oaks, where we are listening for owls.

I can’t blame the owls for remaining silent on such a windy night.

We trudge back to the car, our minds still dull with sleep. Somehow, every speck of dust and crumbled leaf manages to blow into my eyes and get wedged between my contacts and eyeballs.

0600 hours

All is silent save for the whispering breeze in the pines and a few distant Chuck-will’s-widows chanting the night away. We had already heard Chucks; Eastern Screech-Owl is our real quarry here in the Piney Woods well over a hundred miles northeast of High Island. Raising my chin, I whistle through a large glob of saliva on the back of my tongue, making a trembling whistle that sounds vaguely like a screech-owl.


I continue whistling for a minute, and then—“There!” Spencer, one of my teammates, whispers and gestures off to the woods to our left. No one else heard it, but fortunately it continues calling so the rest of us can hear its muffled whistle. Another joins it, and then another.

0900 hours

I lean over the backseat of our fifteen-passenger van (dubbed the “Smelly Sanderling”) and rummage through the large cardboard box of food in the trunk. “Don’t run into anything!” I shout over my shoulder to Chip, who is behind the wheel. Apples—no, dried apricots—no, JERKY—yes!

“Gotcha!” I hiss as I snag three bags from the jumbled box. “Wild Chicken Barbecue, A1 Beef Strips, or Tender Beef Nuggets,” I announce.

“Let’s try the A1,” Spencer decides.

After a brief tussle, I manage to rip open the bag. The sharp scent of A1 sauce invades the interior of the van, adding to the mixed aromas of dirty socks, mud, and dried mango slices. Stuffing a couple slabs into my mouth, I pass the bag to the waiting hands a couple rows up in the van. The jerky tastes like leather soaked in A1 sauce—which is basically what it is.

Suddenly, someone shouts “HAWK!” through a mouthful of the jerky. Chip reacts instantly, whipping the van to the shoulder with alarming speed. Doors fly open, feet crunch on the gravel, binoculars rake the sky. There it is—a small, slim bueto with pale crescents at the end of its wings. “Red-shouldered,” I shout, directing my teammates to the bird. “Got it?”


“Let’s go. GET IN THE CAR!” I yell, following my teammates as they plunge back into the depths of the Smelly Sanderling. We were stopped for less than twenty seconds.

“We’re out of jerky,” Marcel announces as we speed away from the scene.

1200 hours

Large portions of many big days are spent driving. It’s only noon, but we have already been awake for ten hours, and the two and a half hour drive from the Piney Woods to Winnie is taking its toll. I glance over and notice my teammate Harold is sleeping, his head slumped against the window as he gently snores.

Sleeping is a cardinal sin on big days.

I jab him mercilessly until he wakes up.