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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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