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Pitta Party

The Northern Territory of Australia is vast swath of land, home to very few people. It spans more than half a million square miles, almost twice the area of Texas. And it’s home to fewer people than Madison, Wisconsin. About one-quarter of the population are indigenous aboriginal people who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. The northern part of the territory is classified as tropical savanna, while the interior “red centre” is mostly hot and very dry desert. Neil and I were planning to spend the first few days around Darwin, picking up few costal specialties, and then work our way south through world-famous Kakadu National Park and down into the real Outback, as far as Pine Creek or Katherine.

Our first morning in the NT, we arrived at Buffalo Creek just before dawn. The Buffalo Creek management area is 20 minutes north of Darwin. It protects valuable wildlife habitat along the banks of lower Buffalo Creek where it empties into the Timor Sea. This area can experience dramatic tidal changes of up to five or six vertical meters (nearly 20 feet!) in the span of about six hours, so we had consult a tide table to make sure that our birding area would not be underwater. Fortunately this week the difference between high and low tides was a more manageable three meters (about 10 feet), and sunrise corresponded roughly with low tide. We would have to keep an eye on the time and the tides, though. I’d heard that they wait for no man, and we didn’t want to swim back to the car.

Also, swimming back to the car would be a terribly bad idea. The area’s saltwater crocodiles are extremely dangerous, and have been known to kill and eat humans.

The very long boat ramp provided some dramatic evidence of just how much the tides could change. We found the start of a trail, and began working our way into the forest. It was tough going through the dense mangroves, and several times we had to ford small creeks or navigate around them.

Muddy silt and dripping mangrove leaves reminded us that this entire area was underwater a few hours ago.

The cool morning air was alive with birdsong. We quickly picked up a couple dozen species, quite a number of which were new for our trip including Arafura Fantail, Mangrove Gerygone, Red-headed Myzomela, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, and Varied and Red-collared Lorikeets. Chestnut Rail, a shy specialty of the area, eluded us.

After more than an hour in the forest, we returned to the beach area and noticed a large flock of birds along the waterline. We had to trek across an expanse of sand to get close enough to identify them, but soon we were looking at a giant mixed flock of shorebirds and seabirds.

During the next half an hour we sorted through six species of terns, including Little, Lesser Crested, and Whiskered, and 13 species of shorebirds including Lesser and Greater Sand-Plover, Great Knot, Red-capped Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Far Eastern Curlew. Nothing escaped Neil’s sharp-eyed seabird scanner, and he was picking out a couple of offshore Brown Boobies while I perused the seashells washed up on the beach.

Returning to the car, we realized that had notched almost 50 species, 16 of which were brand new for our trip. There is something magical about birding a totally new geographical location. A fresh, unknown experience is always just around the corner. At this point the sun was rising higher in the sky, the tide was inbound, and we had other places to check out before the oppressive heat of the afternoon descended.

The forest trail along nearby Lee Point had been recently subjected to a controlled burn (a not uncommon practice in the Top End), but we still managed to find a couple species of cuckooshrikes and a spectacular Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove. On the way back to the car, Neil was distracted by yet more shorebirds, which we were curiously unable to identify down to species.

Our next stop was the East Point Reserve. By this time the sun was high in the sky, and temperatures had reached the mid 30s C (mid-90s F). The Monsoon Forest Walk was supposed to be good for Rainbow Pitta, a bird that both Neil and I were very keen to see. Monsoon forest is a dry tropical forest biome which experiences a long, hot dry season and then heavy rains. We were in the middle of the “cooler” dry season, but it wasn’t feeling so cool right now. Before setting out, we refreshed ourselves on the Pitta’s distinctive call: a loud, multi-syllabic squawk that is often transliterated as “I WALK to WORK!” Entering the forest, we found ourselves surrounded by a still quietude, punctuated only by our footsteps crunching through the dead leaves. We hiked all of the primary trails, covering a mile and a half in one hot, sweaty hour. We had seen only a handful of birds total, although two of them (Green-backed Gerygone and White-gaped Honeyeater) were new for our trip. The White-gaped Honeyeater completed our set of white-embellished honeyeaters, as we had previously ticked the White-eared, White-cheeked, White-throated, White-plumed, and White-naped. I’m not impressed with Australian ornithologists when it comes to their creativity in naming honeyeaters.

A couple of times I thought I heard a Pitta-like “WALK” calling in the distance, but decided that it was either wishful thinking or auditory hallucinations brought on by the fact that my water bottle was empty and my body temperature was rising. I thought heard it again… up ahead, something was calling. Rounding the next bend in the trail, I paused to listen. Instead of hearing another bird call, I heard the faint rustle of a small creature walking or hopping through the dried leaves. Neil caught up, and that’s when we spied the Pitta.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

It was spectacular. More colorful and vibrant that I had even imagined. I held my breath, certain that it would instantly vanish back into the forest. But it didn’t. The Pitta was not in any hurry to go anywhere. It sauntered around on the ground, up into a low bush, and then back to the ground.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

We watched it for a good 15 minutes before it eventually slipped back into the forest. Despite the fact that we had hardly moved, I felt out of breath. Realizing that I had been alternately holding my breath and breathing very slowly and shallowly, I took a moment to take some deep breathes and give some high fives. We finished our walk, and then headed out for a well-deserved lunch and some cold drinks. In the late afternoon we checked out East Point, and then returned to Buffalo Creek where we picked up Broad-billed Flycatcher and a fly-by Torresian Imperial-Pigeon. Nothing could match our encounter with the Pitta, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.

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Barking Mad

I opened my eyes early the next morning, the predawn glow already lightening the eastern sky through the window above my bed. We had spent the night back at the Reef Palms in Cairns, and I was awoken by the Rufous Owls immediately outside my window duetting about 3am. It was now a little after 6am, and I turned on a light and started re-packing my bag. In less than an hour, we were leaving for the Cairns airport to catch an early flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. We were scheduled to get in late morning, and Neil had already sketched out a madcap afternoon of birding all around the Darwin metro area. I was very excited to see what Darwin would be like. Although I had visited Queensland and New South Wales before, I had never been to Australia’s Top End. I picked up my phone, and saw that I had a text message from Jetstar. It said that my morning flight to Darwin had been canceled. Well THIS was going to throw a spanner into the works!

When Neil got out of the shower and got dressed, we spent 45 minutes on the phone with Jetstar. We never got an explanation as to why the flight was canceled, but we were able to get rebooked on another flight to Darwin in the late afternoon of the same day. Hanging up, we stewed a bit in frustration. We had already seen all of our target species around Cairns, and now we were stuck here another full day. We had also planned an aggressive itinerary in the Top End, and losing most of a day was going to force us to make some difficult choices about what to leave out in the days ahead. Neil was surfing around eBird just on the off chance that something unusual had showed up, when he sat bolt upright. “Little Kingfisher was seen yesterday at the Cairns Botanic Gardens,” he exclaimed.

Careful readers of this blog will know that we searched in vain for Little Kingfisher earlier in the trip near Daintree, and Neil was bitterly disappointed that we had dipped on this uncommon specialty. Now another one had shown up only 15 minutes away. We had a plan for the day! While packing the car, we picked up a flock of Metallic Starlings in the park across the street, a new bird for the trip! We also stopped by the Esplanade, because it was directly on the way and Neil has a deep, almost unnatural love for shorebirds. I took a silly panorama of the beach at sunrise while Neil stared intently through his scope. He did pick out some Red-capped Plovers, another new bird for the trip! After a rotten start to the day, we were on a roll.

Arriving at the Botanic Gardens, we spent a pleasant but Kingfisher-less half hour prowling its last known location. After a while, we bumped into another birder who had just seen the Little Kingfisher in the ponds across the park. We got precise directions, and then set off. “It was right there! You can’t miss it!” he called after us. My heart skipped a beat. If it’s one thing that you never, ever say to a birder chasing a rarity, it’s “you can’t miss it.” Because, dear reader, you very much CAN miss it. In fact, that’s why they’re called “rarities” – they show up rarely, are sometimes very hard to find, and often disappear without a trace. And the worst karmic curse one birder can bestow on another is telling them “you can’t miss it.”

We missed it. One hour stretched into two. We walked all of the trails along the ponds, through the gardens, along the small stream, through the forest boardwalk, and back again. Over and over. The Little Kingfisher is, in fact, quite small: less than 5 inches from tip to tail, about the size of a sparrow. And it is quite shy and somewhat sedentary. It will often sit quietly, tucked away on a small branch overhanging the water, just out of view amongst the foliage. Walking back to the car, I was hot, frustrated, thirsty, hungry, dusty, and tired. I was also wishing some rather uncharitable unpleasantness on Mr. Can’t Miss It. Neil’s brows had furrowed so deeply I contemplated planting some seeds in there. As I turned my head towards the pond, something whipped by my peripheral vision and zipped into a well-vegetated branch near the pond. I looked white and … blue? I scanned with my binoculars, but saw nothing. Then, I saw a small bird dipping its tail. It was … “Little Kingfisher!”

Neil had one panicked moment in which he couldn’t find it, but eventually we both got very satisfying views. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed that we were standing about 20 feet from where we had parked the car. Relieved and happy, we piled into the our vehicle and headed out for some well-deserved lunch. Later in the afternoon we headed to the airport for the (fortunately uneventful) flight to Darwin. At the Cairns airport I stopped for a wrap and found myself face-to-face with another one of Australia’s mysteries:

I ate one, but I’m not sure that it changed my lifestyle that much. Landing in Darwin after dark, I was in favor of a quick dinner and an early bedtime. All of the airline and kingfisher drama had really wiped me out. Neil, of course, had other plans. “I have a place for Barking Owl in Darwin!”

I tried to argue that tomorrow night would be better for owling, but our lost day in the Top End was looming large over both of us. So I agreed to at least scout out the location. Neil’s “place” turned out to be an outdoor movie theater in the heart of Darwin’s urban core. We parked across the street from the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and began to walk around the tiny park on the edge of the harbor. It was a very small area, and I didn’t hear anything except for the movie playing in the outdoor cinema below. There was the sound of two actors arguing, the rippling laughter of the audience, and a dog barking. A dog barking….? I quickly queued up the call of the Barking Owl on my phone and pressed it to my ear. The sound was nearly identical. Pocketing my phone, I took a couple steps down towards the cinema entrance, and suddenly a Barking Owl appeared in the trees above.

Barking Owl – photo by Neil Hayward

It barked at us for a few minutes, as if chastising us for interrupting the movie, then flew back down towards the cinema to catch the car chase scene. As Neil drove us to our hotel, my heavy eyelids drooped and my mind replayed the events of the day in bursts and flashes. It was not the day I was expecting, but it was a pretty great one nonetheless.

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Cairns and Cassowaries

The cheapest and most convenient flight from Sydney to Cairns was on Jetstar, the low-cost “sister” carrier to Qantas.  Jetstar is a distinctly “no frills” airline.  The gate agents weigh your carry-on to see if you have exceeded the strict 7 kg limit; if you have, hefty penalties apply.  There is no entertainment or Wi-Fi on the flight, but you can get water – if you pay extra for it.  Despite the relative lack of amenities, I had no complaints about my Jetstar experience.  The gate agents and flight attendants were polite and professional, the plane was new and clean, and we touched down in Cairns (pronounced like “Cans” if you’re an American) right on time.

Kuanda Rainforest

Kuranda Rain Forest, just outside of Cairns

Cairns is a bustling tourist hub of about 150,000 people right on the coast in Far North Tropical Queensland.  At about 17 degrees south latitude, it experiences sweltering, wet summers and warm, drier winters.  We had perfect weather (highs in the low 80s and dry) most days.  Cairns is a popular birding destination in its own right, and also serves as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef (to the east), Daintree National Park (to the north), the Atherton Tablelands (to the southwest).  The city is flanked by pristine rainforest on several sides.

Barron Falls

Barron Falls, just NW of Cairns

After we picked up our rental car, we headed straight for the Cairns Esplanade, the walking path that runs for several miles along the water from the city center to a productive patch of mangroves at its northern terminus.  Although the austral summer (e.g. winter in the Northern Hemisphere) is much more productive for shorebirds along the Esplanade, we still managed to rustle up Pied Oystercatcher, Black-fronted Dotterel, Far Eastern Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and the ubiquitous Masked Lapwing.

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Other highlights were Torresian and Sacred Kingfishers, Varied Honeyeaters, a Pacific Reef Heron, and a relatively shy Mangrove Robin.  We would return a couple more times to the Esplanade, picking up Beach Thick-knee and several other species.

After strolling the Esplanade (well, I strolled; Neil intermittently power-walked and peered through his telescope intently) we decided to head down to Etty Bay to search for the largest bird in Australia.  The Southern Cassowary is a rare resident of tropical rainforests in northern Queensland and New Guinea.  Adults can reach 6 feet in height and weigh nearly 200 pounds.  Although it cannot fly, the cassowary is not a bird to be trifled with.  It has powerful legs and a dagger-like toe that can eviscerate would-be predators or hapless birders.

As we approached Etty Bay, I picked up on some subtle signs that cassowaries might be close by.

Cassowary Sign

As we rounded a curve, I caught a glimpse of a large black and blue shape near the edge of the forest.  “Whoa!  Did you see that?!” I hollered at Neil.  His eyes remained on the road and his foot on the accelerator.  He calmly replied, “yep.”

I gave him a hard look.  “It was a large statue of a cassowary, right?” he responded.  The car drove on around another curve.  Panic was rising in my chest as I blurted, “That was not a STATUE of a cassowary!  That.  Was.  A.  Cassowary!”  Neil spared a glance at me, took in my wide eyes and open mouth, and decided that I wasn’t pulling his leg.  The car fishtailed as Neil deftly made a U-turn at speed, and we were hurtling back down the winding hill.  When a mammoth dark shape appeared on the right, Neil pulled the car off to the side of the road 25 meters away.  We took a good long look at the cassowary.  It gave us a glance, and then went back to lounging near the forest.  We carefully got out of the car and crept a little closer, mindful to stay a respectful distance away.

Southern Cassowary

Southern Cassowary – photo by Neil Hayward

The cassowary remained nonchalant, the sunlight gleaming off its horn-like casque.  Its brilliant blue neck extended and then pulled back, its pink wattles swinging in the breeze.  For ten minutes we just marveled at it.  Neil snapped some terrific photos.  We returned to the car, buzzing, and continued onwards towards Etty Bay to see if we could find any other cassowaries.

The beach at Etty bay had picnickers, volleyball players, and beachcombers.  I doubted we would run into any other cassowaries down here.  Until I saw a footprint in the sand.

Cassowary footprint

A very large footprint.  With three toes.  Raising my binoculars, I scanned again.  My eyes alighted on a dark shape stepping out of the rain forest.  It was coming towards me.  I backed out of the way as the prehistoric monster sidled by.  It was not coming for me after all.  It was headed directly for…

Cassowary Picnic Basket

Cassowary Loots the Picnic Basket – photo by Neil Hayward

an unattended picnic basket.  Deftly removing a tea towel covering the food, the cassowary proceeded to pull out a huge bunch of bananas.  In a flash, it ripped off a banana, threw it in the air, and swallowed it whole.  Seconds later another followed, and then another.  It was six bananas in when the owner of the picnic basket arrived and tried to shoo the cassowary away.  The cassowary stood up and stared at the woman, as if to say, “really, what do you intend to do?”  It then proceeded to eat the rest of her bananas, poke around in the basket to see if there was any other ripe fruit, and then slowly amble away.

After having our fill of cassowaries (we spotted an immature bird on the way out), we returned to Cairns.  At this point, I was starving.  Neil asked if I liked pies, “Because, if you do, I know a place.”  The ‘place’ turned out to be a gas station with a Pie Face fast food chain inside.  Let’s just say that after we sampled their “food,” there were only two smiles in the car as we pulled away.

Pie Face

Returning to Cairns, we decided to follow up on a hot lead.  A pair of uncommon Rufous Owls was being reported in a park… which turned out to be immediately adjacent to our hotel – the Reef Palms!  It took us a couple of tries to catch up to them, but eventually we had smashing looks at the owls both in the evening twilight as we watched them court each other and during midday in their roost tree.  You couldn’t quite see them from our room, but you could catch a glimpse of them from inside the hotel at the bottom of the stairs.

Neil looking at owls

They were truly magnificent.  We ended up having great luck with owls on this trip (with five species seen well and another heard only), but these might have been my favorites.

Rufous Owls2

A Pair of Rufous Owls

Getting ready for bed that night, it was hard to imagine that I had actually woken up in Sydney that morning, 1500 miles away.  “Surely we can’t keep up this pace for the entire trip,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep.  I was wrong.

 

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Arrival at the Indian Ocean: Birding St. Lucia and iSimangaliso

On the afternoon of Day 12 of our South African birding adventure, we drove into St. Lucia. This is not the island nation of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean. This is St. Lucia, a tiny tourist town (population 1100) in KwaZulu-Natal on the shores of the Indian Ocean in eastern South Africa. I fell in love with it at once. The main street had a welcoming and low-key vacation vibe. A warm ocean breeze stirred the palm trees outside the coffee shop, where we drank coffee and ate pastries. There was both WiFi and cell service, and Neil and I took the opportunity to send reassuring texts to our families after a number of days of radio silence. And after five or six meals in a row of granola bars, dried fruit, and sandwiches (and wondering if I should buy some sketchy looking warthog chops to cook with my bare hands over the braai), we were greeted by a number of real restaurants. We had reserved a room at St. Lucia Wilds for two nights, which was a perfectly nice place to stay with a quiet setting, clean and comfortable accommodations, friendly hosts, and a very reasonable rate.

Over the course of the next two days, we explored the lush coastal forests and estuaries around St. Lucia. One of our first stops was the beach just east of town. We marveled at the roaring surf of the Indian Ocean, and watched several humpback whales cruise just offshore.

There were a healthy number of new birds to add to our list as well, including some stately Pink-backed Pelicans, Cape Gannet, Kittlitz’s Plover, and Yellow-billed Stork.

Pink-backed Pelicans – photo by Neil Hayward

We visited the nearby Igwalawala nature trail several times, and enjoyed seeing the multitude of forest birds that were drawn to the fruiting figs, including Trumpeter Hornbill and both Purple-crested and Livingstone’s Turaco.

Trumpeter Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

On Day 13, we spent most of the day at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This spectacular reserve protects a swath of lowland forest and coastline stretching north from St. Lucia all the way to the border with Mozambique. We drove the main road that snakes between Lake St. Lucia on the west and the ocean to the east all of the way up to Cape Vidal. In the misty forest at the Cape we saw several Woodward’s Batis, a bird that is rarely found in South Africa outside
iSimangaliso Park. Along the Grassland Loop road, a highlight was Collared Pratincole.

Neil has all of his optics at the ready
Woodward’s Batis – photo by Neil Hayward
Collared Pratincole – photo by Neil Hayward

Coming back in the late afternoon, I was gazing sleepily out the window when a couple of dark shapes in the distance caught my attention. “Stop!” I shouted to Neil, and our SUV fish-tailed slightly on the muddy road as Neil executed his patented full-stop emergency birding maneuver. It wasn’t birds that had caught my attention, but a trio of White Rhinoceroses including a young calf ambling through a wet meadow. Although we had seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, water buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, vervet monkeys, jackels, hyenas, meerkats, and whales, we had totally dipped on rhinos. Problems with poachers had led rangers and park officials throughout the country to be tight-lipped about rhino sightings, and in some cases rhinos were even relocated to more remote, more protected areas. But at last, here at iSimangaliso we found them. After watching the rhino family for half an hour or so at a respectable distance, we continued our drive back to St. Lucia.

White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward
White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward

The St. Lucia area provided a very satisfying conclusion to our trip. I was a little worried that everything after Kruger would be anti-climactic, but the last few days were a wonderful way to wrap things up. We submitted eBird checklists from False Bay, St. Lucia Estuary, and iSimangaliso Park.

Now it was time for us to drive back to Johannesburg. I needed to catch a flight back to Seattle, and Neil was meeting his family for a little vacation time in Cape Town. We stopped by Mtunzini to look for Palm-nut Vultures, and the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe. The aerial boardwalk through the trees was quite impressive, but our bird list at Dlinza was pretty meager.

All told, I saw 333 species in 14 days traversing northeast South Africa. Neil picked up some bonus species around Cape Town, and ended his trip close to 400. It was an absolutely amazing experience that exceeded my expectations in every way.

So what’s next? That whole story will have to wait for future posts this summer. But this arrived in the mail at my house last month:

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The Dry Tortugas

I spent the last five days first driving down the mainline Florida Keys and then travelling by ship to the Dry Tortugas, a set of low-lying islets about 70 miles off the coast of Key West.

Just traveling to Key West is a remarkable journey.  It is about three hours south of Miami on US 1, also known as the Overseas Highway.  The name is apt, as you can often see the Gulf of Mexico to your right and the Atlantic on your left as you traverse this relatively narrow two-lane highway.  The most impressive stretch is Seven Mile Bridge, a span that covers almost seven miles of open water between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key.

Keys

The Keys hold a remarkable diversity of special wildlife.  I saw the endemic Key Deer, a miniature race of White-tailed Deer.  They stand about two feet tall at the shoulder, making them a little larger than a cocker spaniel.  There were also plenty of cool birds, including a rare Western Spindalis, Mangrove Cuckoo,  Black-whiskered Vireo, and the majestic Magnificent Frigatebird:

Magnificent Frigatebird

Frigatebirds are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from other birds. They will wait until a smaller seabird like a gull or tern has captured a fish, and then harass it until it drops its prey.

I didn’t get too many photos of the mainline Keys because the weather was incredibly stormy.  Thursday was particularly crazy, when 4.14 inches of rain fell in the span of about four hours.  It was the fifth wettest May day ever recorded in Key West, and many of the streets were flooded by up to 18 inches of water.  As a reference for you Seattle folks, we only have three months where our average monthly precipitation is more than 4.14 inches (November through January).

Storms over the Ocean

On Friday, I joined Wes Biggs and Florida Nature Tours aboard the M/V Spree for a three day tour of the Dry Tortugas.

Spree

Wes is an extremely experienced and knowledgeable birder, and a real character.  He has a story for every occasion, and an opinion on pretty much every topic.  I really enjoyed getting to know him a bit on this trip.

It took about seven hours to motor out to the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of our marina on Stock Island.  The Tortugas were first discovered by Europeans by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 as he explored the lands that were to become Florida.  He named them Las Tortugas because his men collected many sea turtles there for food; the adjective ‘dry’ was added later on nautical charts to indicate that they are too small and too low to provide any fresh water.  The three largest islands in the group are between 30 and 60 acres, with three or four other much smaller islets.  They sit just a couple feet above sea level.

In 1846, the Federal Government began to build a fort on Garden Key, a construction project that continued for decades.  Fort Jefferson was never really finished, but it is an impressive edifice:

Fort Jefferson

It takes up more than 90% of the land area of Garden Key, and with 16 million bricks is the largest masonry structure in all of the Americas.  It was an active military base through most of the 19th Century, and was an important Union outpost during the Civil War.

Fort Jefferson Moat

Most famously, Fort Jefferson was where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for a number of years after he was convicted of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln.  Mudd treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after he assassinated Lincoln, and was alleged to have been involved in a plot to kidnap the president.

Dr Mudds Cell

Some claim that Dr. Mudd is the original inspiration for the expression “your name is mud(d)” – although this is disputed.  After he tried to escape, Mudd was sent to live in the dungeon:

Leaveth Hope Behind

Over time, his reputation changed somewhat.  Dr. Mudd was present during a yellow fever outbreak in the late 1860s, and helped to treat the many affected prisoners and soldiers.  He was eventually pardoned for his great medical efforts in 1869.

Today, Fort Jefferson is the heart of Dry Tortugas National Park, and one of the places we spent the most time on our three day trip.

Fort Jefferson Sign

The interior of the fort is filled with grass, trees, and bushes – the perfect stop-over point for trans-Gulf migrants on their way from the Yucatan or the Caribbean to the US mainland.

Inside Fort Jefferson

We saw a number of warblers, thrushes, vireos, and flycatchers who dropped in for a rest and a bite to eat, including this gorgeous Scarlet Tanager.

Scarlet Tanager

In addition to searching for passerines on Garden Key, seabirds were another focus of the trip.  One of my favorite is the large tropical tern called a Brown Noddy:

Brown Noddy

We saw thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns nesting on Bush Key:

Island Closed

Hey, someone needs to tell all those birds that this island is closed!

We also saw both Brown and Masked Boobies.  Hospital Key, not much more than a big sand bar, is the only nesting site for Masked Booby in the United States.  This Key was named during the yellow fever outbreak, when it served as a quarantine area.

Hospital Key

Those tiny white dots are the Masked Boobies.   A pod of dolphins also greeted us upon our arrival at Hospital Key:

Dolphin

We also visited Loggerhead Key, the largest of the Tortugas islands and the home to the Loggerhead lighthouse.

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

Spree at Loggerhead

After three amazing days, it was time to head back to Key West.  The seas were a bit rougher than normal, and despite the many wonders I had witnessed I was ready to spend the night on dry land.  The Tortugas are a special place, and I hope to return some day with my kids to share its magic with them.

Rainbow over Fort Jeff

 

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More Migration Miracles

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of migrant oases dotted along the Gulf Coast which can be good for seeing neotropical migrants winging their way past.  I visited a several of them, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to Lafitte’s Cove near Galveston all the way to Peveto Woods in southwestern Louisiana.

Welcome to Louisiana

Peveto Woods

But some of the oldest and most famous coastal migrant traps are the Houston Audubon Society’s nature preserves in the tiny town of High Island.  Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks have been attracting birds and bird watchers to this section of the Texas coast for decades.

Boy Scout Woods

When the north wind blows, Boy Scout Woods can blow your mind with an incredible diversity and sheer numbers of birds.  While I was there, a moderate southeast wind was predominant; good weather for migrating, and many birds overflew the coast riding the favorable tailwind, stopping miles inland at larger tracts of favorable habitat.  Even under these conditions, the sanctuaries at High Island produced a slow but steady influx of warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles.  And while small songbirds (known more formally as passerines) are the usual highlight at High Island, the sanctuaries also play host to other kinds of migrating birds, like this nighthawk, who is trying to catch a quick nap before continuing on its migration once night falls again.

Lesser Nighthawk

High Island also serves another function, a more social one for us humans.  It is one of the great Meccas of the birding world.  All serious birders eventually make the pilgrimage to High Island, and it’s a great place to meet and talk to other birders.  Some of them are from up the street, and some of them are from Europe, South America, or Australia.  Some are first timer newbie birders who marvel at the local Cardinals, and some are grizzled veterans who can ID a flying Prothonotary Warbler from 200 yards away, just by its ‘chip’ call note.

The grandstand area is the grand central station of the High Island birding community.  Audubon memberships and t-shirts are bought and sold.  Wooden bleachers have been set up near a small pond, a water drop, and a fruiting mulberry tree.  Birds and birders circulate there throughout the day to see and be seen.

High Island

There is a network of trails and boardwalks that go throughout the property, which travel through a couple of different habitats from weedy fields to mature stands of oak.

BSW Trail

The sanctuaries use to host several dozen hundred-year old oak trees, but many of them were damaged or killed by a series of hurricanes that included Ike and Rita.  While they are different places now with many of the big trees gone, the High Island sanctuaries are still good for birds, and a new generation of trees is growing up.

Of course, there are many species of birds who are on tremendous journeys of their own for whom trees and bushes offer no respite at all.  Shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and curlews need open fields, mudflats, and beaches to feed and rest.  Houston Audubon is doing its part to help these birds as well, and I spent an afternoon at their Bolivar Flats tidelands preserve a dozen miles or so south of High Island on the coast.

Bolivar Flats Sign

There I got to see thousands of shorebirds taking a break from their epic trips.  Some of these birds “winter” in Patagonia (during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer!) at the southern tip of South America and breed at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.

This Red Knot is just transitioning into his rusty summer plumage.

Red Knot

I saw many, many Willets, including this one who was doing a dance (I think it was the Willet Hokey Pokey):

Willet dance

Each shorebird was hanging out in its own preferred habitat.  This Long-billed Curlew stalked the waterline:

LB Curlew

A Hudsonian Godwit fed in the grass:

Hudsonian Godwit

And Wilson’s Plovers loafed in the dry sand up the beach:

Wilson's Plover

Protecting this habitat is vitally important for migrating shorebirds.  Yes, they can travel 10,000 miles in matter of weeks.  But they can’t do it if they don’t have rest and refueling stations along the way.  If the entire Gulf Coast succumbs to beach condos and oil refineries, these shorebirds will be squeezed out of existence.

Oil refinery

Fortunately, groups like Houston Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Ornithological Society are fighting to preserve important sections of coastline, and the birds who call this area home.  One way to learn more about shorebirds and their amazing migrations is to band them.  Researchers place tiny plastic and metal bands on the birds’ legs, and use them to track the birds along their migration route.  I was fortunate enough to spot a banded Piping Plover, and used the internet to report my sighting to the ornithologists who banded it.  If you look closely, you can see the red and white bands on its legs in the picture below:

Banded Piping Plover

My trip to Texas is winding up, and it is time to go home and spend some time with my family.  Soon, it will also be time to finish planning my next adventure:  Florida and the Dry Tortugas.

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Migration Miracle

People in Seattle often ask me why I go to Texas to go bird watching.  And they often do so with a skeptical tone in their voice and a perplexed expression on their face.  There are many reasons why Texas is arguably the very best place in the United States to go birding.  One is the large number of specialties that occur here and nowhere else in this county or in the world (Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken to name only three).  A second reason is the proximity to the Mexican border, where many Mexican species reach their northern-most limits and a few rarities from further south occasionally just venture into the US (like Least Grebe and Crimson-collared Grosbeak).  These reasons alone would make Texas a must-visit.  But there is a third reason to come down to the Lone Star State, and it has to do with migration.  In order to fully understand why Texas is such an amazing place to see migrating birds, it’s helpful to back up a minute and consider why birds migrate in the first place.

Migration is an expansive and complex phenomenon.  Birds migrate for many different reasons.  But here is a brief introduction to why many of our birds “fly south” in the winter and “fly north” in the summer.  A big clue can be found in our global geography.

world map

Even a casual glance at a world map shows that there is more land mass north of the equator than south of it.  In addition, the two largest continents of the Southern Hemisphere taper to a point as they approach the South Pole, leaving a relatively small land mass at high southern latitudes near Antarctica.  In contrast, continents in the Northern Hemisphere tend to flare outwards as they go north towards the pole, creating a huge expanse of territory in the north temperate and arctic regions.  These lands in the northern US and Canada, northern Europe, and Siberia can be bitterly cold in winter, often locked below layers of ice and snow.  In the summer however, these vast areas warm considerably.  There is abundant nesting habitat, swarms of insects, and an explosion of seeds and fruits there during the brief boreal summer.  In short, it is a paradise for birds, but only for a few short months from early May to the end of the September.

While many birds are content to live their lives in the tropics year round where temperatures are mild and food is consistently available, some species have discovered that it is worthwhile to travel north during our summer, feast on the incredible abundance present, raise their young, and then high-tail it out of there before the weather turns again.  It is a risky strategy, but one that can pay huge dividends.  We call these birds who have taken on this high risk/high reward lifestyle in the Americas “neotropical migrants.”  They include our summer breeding songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers.  We often think of them as “our birds,” but really, we are just borrowing them for a few months.  They spend most of the year in Central and South America, often leaving as early as August and not returning until May.

Now you can begin to appreciate why Texas can be an amazing place to see birds in the spring and the fall.  Almost all of the neotropical migrants who breed anywhere in North America must pass through (or at least over) Texas twice a year.  Anytime in April or September, you can be almost any place in Texas and see migrants passing through.  But there are some locations which are truly special places to see migrating songbirds, especially the true dare-devils of this risk-loving group.

Suppose you are a Yellow Warbler, and you are trying beat all of your peers to the prime nesting habitat in an Ohio wetland.  Arrive too early, and there are no insects to eat and you may freeze to death.  Arrive too late, and all the of best territories and mates are already taken.  So you need to race there as fast as you can right during the “Goldilocks” window – not too early, and not too late.  Traveling up from Central America, you could play it relatively safe, and travel all the way around the Gulf of Mexico.  Some birds do this; we call them “Circum-Gulf migrants.”

Traveling north, they eventually hit the Gulf of Mexico somewhere near the Yucatan Peninsula (perhaps at point A, below).  There they scream “oh crap!” (or whatever birds scream when they find out that 600 miles of open water stand between them and that sexy female warbler they hope to find in Ohio), and turn to follow the Gulf all the way around the eastern coast of Mexico and up into Texas, arriving at Point B several days later:

Gulf Map

Of course, there are also the dare-devils that I mentioned earlier.  They eye the Gulf and say to themselves, “Hey, 600 miles is no biggie.  If I leave here at sunset, I could fly all night and all morning and be there by lunchtime – especially if the weather is good and I have a SE tailwind to push me along.”  These extreme risk takers, called Trans-Gulf migrants, are making a pretty good bet.  They can save a couple days of precious travel time by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico.  Of course they cannot eat or drink en route, and they can’t rest until they make landfall, some 18 hours later.  For healthy birds, everything is usually fine unless they meet bad weather in transit, like a northerly headwind, rain, or (worst-case scenario) thunderstorms.

When the wind blows from the north or storms brew over the Texas shoreline, birders head to the coast, to places like High Island (point B on the map above).  High Island is a tiny town just a couple dozen miles from the Louisiana border, and just half a mile from the beach.  It sits on a salt dome, so it is a dozen feet above the surrounding salt marsh flats.  The added elevation means that it’s the only place for miles and miles around that has trees (the little bit of added elevation means that their roots are not drowned by saltwater).  The Houston Audubon Society has several small nature sanctuaries in High Island filled with trees and native vegetation.

Boy Scout Woods

Trans-Gulf migrants that hit unfavorable weather are in trouble.  Some exhaust themselves and drown in the Gulf.  The ones that make it to land are in desperate need of a place to rest and food to eat.  They look for any suitable place to set down, even if it’s just a couple acres of trees like the nature preserves at High Island.  Birders on the ground can watch birds literally falling out of the sky.  You can see dozens and dozens of species – sometimes thousands of individual birds – hopping around at your feet and in the bushes, trying to find food and water and just rest for a minute.  My wife and I once witnessed a dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers come in off the Gulf just over the waves and crash-land on the sand dunes, where they sat, exhausted.  One April morning in Key West, I watched a thunderstorm precipitate a massive fallout of birds in a tiny park near the island’s tip.  I saw 100 Yellow-billed Cuckoos and 300 Indigo Buntings flopping around the bushes and small trees, along with about 60 other species of birds.  While fallouts are exciting for bird watchers, they are bad for bids.  The daredevils are paying a heavy price for their high risk strategy, many forfeiting their lives.

I didn’t witness any spectacular fallouts this time in Texas, but I was near the coast on several occasions when a light mist was falling or when the wind shifted slightly from the north.  At the South Padre Island Convention Center, there is a small planting of trees – really no bigger than a modest-sized suburban backyard.  But it is one of the only natural shelters for miles around for tired migrants.  The blue and yellow building in the picture below is the Convention Center; you can see the trees poking up slightly above the surrounding salt marsh:

Convention Center

One afternoon I watched that tiny area fill up with warblers, buntings, vireos, and orioles.  Even normally shy species were too hungry and tired to play coy.  This Black-throated Green Warbler flitted close around me for ten minutes, almost landing on my head:

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green2

As the Convention Center has become well known as a stopover place for migrant songbirds, volunteers have planted more trees and bushes, and even added a water feature for the birds.  Drips and water features are very attractive for neotropical migrants, who are thirsty from their flight and often want to bath and clean their feathers.  I saw a steady parade of birds come through the little pool, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler (left) and Nashville Warbler (right):

Warblers in the water

And then some Indigo Buntings came by:

Indigo Buntings Join

And even a Painted Bunting, whose brilliant blue, red, and neon yellow-green plumage is not adequately captured by this bad photo:

Painted Bunting

On that particular day, Nashville Warblers were particularly abundant, and I watched a steady stream of them come by to bathe:

Nashville Warbler bathing

A group called the Valley Land Fund decided to add a little more migrant stop-over habitat about a mile south of the Convention Center.  They bought up a number of adjacent vacant lots in a residential area, and planted them with trees and shrubs.  They fenced them off, but also created many spaces for birders to see into the new natural gardens they made.  In this way, the birds got a refuge, and birders got another place to watch the birds:

SPI woodlots

Valley Land Fund

Of course some migrant birds like sandpipers and plovers don’t find sanctuary in trees on their journey.  I’ll write about them in my next post.

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One Good Tern Deserves Another

Yesterday was my last day in the South Padre Island area.  A morning walk on the beach produced hundreds of terns of at least six species.  We are relatively tern-poor in Western Washington, where seeing more than a couple species in a day is unusual.  My favorite tern is the Black Skimmer, with his mammoth orange-and-black bill (seen here with a number of smaller Sandwich Terns, which have thin black bills tipped in white).

Terns

In addition to a great many types of terns, the Texas Gulf Coast is also blessed with an abundant number and variety of herons and egrets.  All of these birds thrive in the extensive coastal marshes and wetlands that run the length of Texas’s shoreline for hundreds of miles.

Usually, when I get into a staring contest with a bird, I win handily.  But this Green Heron stared me down with its stern and unwavering gaze.

Green Heron

A Tricolored Heron was skulking nearby, trying to catch a little shade under a tiny mangrove.

Tricolored Heron

Along the boardwalk I looked down to see a great many fish.  Those are going to make the local Ospreys very happy, I thought.

fish

Suddenly a black and white blur streaked past, skimming low over the way, and snagged a fish on the fly-by.  Then the Osprey took his catch to a nearby perch, and calmly breakfasted on very fresh fish.

Osprey

In the afternoon I began the long drive north.  I had an important date the next day.  A date with chickens.  And I didn’t want to be late.

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