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South Florida Photo Essay

I have arrived in South Florida.  I’ve actually been here for several days, but have been too busy trying to see everything there is to see here to work on my photos and blog posts.  I’m here in the Sunshine State to see some special subtropical birds which reach the northern (or western) edge of their range here, and also to catch a bit more of spring migration as birds stream through Florida on their way north.  Also, at the end of my trip I’ll be catching a boat out to the Dry Tortugas, a set of islands in the Gulf of Mexico about 65 miles west of Key West.  (More on that later!)

Instead of taking you through my travels here so far chronologically or geographically, I’m just going to post a bunch of pictures and tell you a little about each one (or at least about most of them).

There is a lot of water in Florida.  The ocean and the gulf, ponds, canals, wetlands, mudflats, and the Everglades (which is basically like one giant sheet of extremely shallow water).

Wakodahatchee Wetlands

All of this water is a bonanza for water birds of all types: herons, egrets, sandpipers, cormorants, etc.  Here is one of my favorite, the Least Bittern:

Least Bittern

That is an adult, hunting for minnows in the shallow water.  A juvenile Least Bittern peeks out of a nest not far away:

Least Bittern Chick

Cattle Egrets are everywhere.  They often forage in the same fields with livestock, eating the insects and other small animals kicked up by the large mammals.  It’s also nesting time for the Cattle Egrets, and here are two making a nest together:

Cattle Egret nest

I think this Double-crested Cormorant is too hot, based on its “panting” behavior:

Cormorant

The riotous pink of Roseate Spoonbills are everywhere.  My daughter loves these the best.  This picture is for you, Piper!  I’ll try to get a better photo later this week.

Spoonbill

Black-necked Stilts are making a terrible racket.  Some people call them “pool poodles” due to their incessant high-pitched yapping:

Black-necked Stilt

Sandpipers, like this Solitary Sandpiper, are stopping off for a just a quick refueling on their way up to the Arctic.

Solitary Sandpiper

There are some cool plants here as well, like palm trees

Royal Palms

and many species of epiphytes (which grow on other plants):

Epiphytes

The Strangler Fig is a special kind of Ficus tree that starts life as an epiphyte.  Its seed lands in the top of a tree (thanks to a bird, who ate a fig fruit shortly beforehand, and excreted the inedible part).  The seed sprouts and lives as an epiphyte for several years.  Meanwhile, it sends runners down the trunk of its host tree, which eventually reach the forest floor and grow into roots.  The Ficus grows larger and larger, and eventually “strangles” the host tree, usually killing it.  It’s an ingenious evolutionary adaptation to living in dense tropical forests where little light usually reaches the forest floor.  Here’s a strangler fig near the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park:

Strangler Fig

I have a lot more cool pictures and stories to share, but it’s late (and I have a very early appointment tomorrow with a very annoying sparrow), so I will leave you with this turtles.  They have it pretty good, I think: soaking up sun by the pool, eating some flowers, and watching the gators float by.

Turtles

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Dancing Chickens and Skulking Rails

Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

I woke up extra early on Saturday, and drove for 50 miles along a nearly abandoned two-lane road through the dark Texas night to the only national wildlife refuge named for a chicken.  I know, right?  A chicken?!  It’s a pretty special chicken, though.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a genetically unique subspecies (or race) of the Greater Prairie Chicken.  While most Greater PC’s live up in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, a small population of them has evolved to live here on the Texas coastal plain.  Hunting and cattle grazing have caused their numbers here to plummet, and there are currently only about 50 Attwater’s Prairie Chickens left in the wild (plus a few more in a small captive breeding program).  And every wild Attwater’s PC lives here on this modest refuge.

Normally, it’s almost impossible to see a Prairie Chicken here (I tried back in February and didn’t see one).  While part of the refuge is open to the public, the Prairie Chickens live in the northern sector which is normally closed to everyone except for researchers and refuge staff.  But for two mornings a year, for 1-2 hours each morning, the park rangers at Attwater allow limited access to view some incredibly endangered dancing chickens.

Prairie Chickens and some of their grouse relatives engage in a behavior known as lekking or lek mating.  In the spring, male Prairie Chickens gather in a communal area (known as a lek) and perform a complex display which involves inflating large air sacs on their neck, raising feathers (known as pinnae) on their head, and dancing and jumping into the air.  Females gather at the lek as well, and use the performances to select a worthy mate.

If I got up early enough, I might get a chance to see Attwater’s Prairie Chickens dancing on their lek.  I arrived to the refuge at 6:25 am.  The tours were supposed to start at 7:00 am.  There were already 30 people in line ahead of me to catch a van.  I got in line, and watched the eastern sky brighten.

Pre Dawn at Attwater

I made it into the third van for the 10 minute trip to the northern part of the refuge.  Once there, I joined a group of eager birders and nature enthusiasts on a small raised platform, about 200 yards from the lek area.  The lek was a small flat area where the chickens had trampled the vegetation a bit.  You can almost see it just the to the right of the base of the windmill in the picture below.  We waited.

Lek Site

Soon, a male Attwater’s Praire Chicken appeared, and began to strut, “boom”, and dance.  A little while later, two rivals joined him.  While it was too far away for me to get photos, I got great looks through my telescope.  So did everyone else.

Chicken watchers

I did take a few pictures of some photos hanging in the refuge office to give you an idea of what I saw:

Chicken photo

Chicken photo2

My favorite picture is an amazing color drawing by local 4th grader, Diamond Flores.

Festival Poster Winner

You can also find some amazing lekking behavior on YouTube – here’s a very cool video showing Lesser Prairie Chickens at a lek (it’s only 47 seconds).

No one knows what’s in store for the future of Attwater’s PC.  The wildlife biologists and other staff at the refuge are working hard to sustain and grow the tiny population here, but there are many challenges.  The adult birds have a mortality rate of about 50% per year, mostly due to hawks and other predators. The chicks are also vulnerable to predators, and may be competing (not very successfully) with introduced fire ants for ground insects in the weeks and months after hatching.  New releases from the captive breeding flock bolster the wild population, but right even with these additions the numbers of PC’s at Attwater are barely holding stable.  Hopefully the dedication and hard work of the refuge staff will eventually pay off with a healthy and expanding population in the years to come.

After a successful morning at Attwater NWR, I decided to try my luck at another almost-impossible-to-see species: Yellow Rail.  While Attwater’s Prairie Chickens are critically endangered and found only in a restricted area, they practically scream for your addition during the lekking season.  Rails are exactly the opposite.  They are relatively common, and are widespread in many marshes along the Texas coast.  But Yellow and Black Rails in particular are extremely secretive.  They are small wetland birds who always stay hidden in dense marsh grass, and never willingly allow themselves to be seen.  Yellow and Black Rails are the hardest common, dirual (active during the day) birds to actually see in North America.  But there’s one way to see them.  And it’s at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 minutes drive from Attwater.

Anahuac NWR

Anahuac has a very healthy population of Yellow Rails that spend the winter here in Texas, and summer up in Minnesota (where I heard one last June).  A couple of times each spring, the refuge holds “Yellow Rail Walks.”  Basically you get a couple of dozen people to walk around in the rails’ habitat and wait for a rail to pop up out of the grass and fly a short distance before it disappears back into the grass.  The only problem is that the rail’s habitat is thigh-high marsh grass growing in deep sucking mud covered in up to a foot of brackish water.  Yep, rail seekers get seriously messy.

The rail walk organizer had also brought some milk jugs filled with rocks that he tied together with a rope.  The milk jugs help to “beat the bushes” and encourage the rails to flush instead of just running through the legs of the participants.  Rails have incredibly skinny bodies, and can squeeze through very narrow openings in the rushes – hence the expression, “thin as a rail.”

We headed out into the marsh.  It was wet.  And muddy.  And a real workout walking through that mud.

Rail Walk

We saw our first Yellow Rail within 10 minutes.  They have very distinctive white wing patches that can be seen as they flutter away to safety.  We continued to slog through the mud and grass for another half an hour or so.  Final tally: seven Yellow Rails and one Black Rail.  And I was only wet and muddy from the chest down!

Before leaving Anahuac, I toured another part of the refuge.  Here I saw a third rail species, King Rail.  King Rails are often pretty shy, but compared to Yellow and Black Rails this fellow was practically an exhibitionist.  I even managed a photo:

King Rail

I also came across some baby alligators in a small pool, probably just out of the nest.  Too cute!

Baby Alligators

I rewarded myself with dinner at the local BBQ joint, which was very satisfying.

BBQ dinner

And as the sun set, I drove back to my hotel for a hot shower and 90 minutes of trying to use the hair dryer to get my only pair of shoes back to a wearable state.

Anahuac Sunset

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Ridiculously Cold Pronghorns, Cacti, and Trogons

Yesterday I complained about how cold it was here in southern Arizona.  Mother Nature read my blog last night, and wrote a comment that said “You think THAT was cold?!  Just wait ’til tomorrow, sucka!”  Here’s what my thermometer read about half an hour after sunrise.

9 F

And I was in a warm part of town, apparently.  The guy on the radio said it was only 8 degrees.  My car engine did (finally) start, and I was on my way to the San Rafael Grasslands southeast of Patagonia.  The grasslands (and surrounding hills) are beautiful, but there weren’t many birds out.  Perhaps they were still in bed with the covers pulled over their heads.  I headed to a spot where Baird’s Sparrows had been reported the week before, but the only bird around was a Kestrel perched in the top of a tree.  Kestrels are bird-eaters, so all of the little sparrows had fled the area and it was otherwise deserted.

On the way back I passed a small herd of Pronghorns.  Pronghorns are sometimes called antelopes, but although they look a lot like real antelopes found in Africa and Asia, they are not closely related.  These are not introduced animals.  They are native to the Americas – endemic, in fact, to the western US and tiny adjacent pieces of Canada and Mexico.

Pronghorn

The males develop impressive ‘pronged horns’ in the summer and fall, but they drop them in winter so none of the animals I observed had any horns.  They did display their amazing speed and leaping ability, however.

Pronghorn2

Leaving the Proghorns, I drove to Patagonia Lake State Park.  I originally intended to stay only an hour or so there, but I kept seeing good stuff and ended up spending most of the rest of the day there.  This Anna’s Hummingbird sat in a mesquite tree next to the Visitor’s Center and complained loudly that the sugar water in the hummingbird feeder was frozen solid.  

Annas Hummer

[Bonus question for my Honors Chem students: what is the freezing point of sugar water that contains 1 cup of sucrose dissolved in 4 cups of water?  The freezing point constant for water is 1.8 C*kg/mol and the density of sucrose is 1.6 g/mL.]

I meandered down by the lake, and was surprised by this stunning male Elegant Trogon.

Elegant Trogon

Trogons are fairly common in the canyons of southeastern Arizona in the spring and summer, but almost all of them retreat back to Mexico in the winter.  So this was a real treat.  The trogons I have seen in the past have been somewhat shy, but this bird seemed totally unconcerned with my presence.  He posed for quite some time so that I could get photos of his beautiful reddish-orange belly, brilliant yellow bill and eye ring, and bright green back.

Elegant Trogon2

And then he wanted to make sure I got a close-up of his coppery tail.  Do these iridescent green feathers make my butt look big?

Heading back to the car, I was taking pictures of cacti and some other plants.

Fruiting cactus

That’s when I found owl #11 for the year, a Western Screech-Owl.  They live in King County (where I live!), but I just haven’t managed to come across one in Washington state yet.  I scored a sleeping one in Arizona though, and here is the obligatory bad picture of the owl snoozing away in deep cover.

Western Screech Owl

I’m going to look for Thrashers tomorrow, and then maybe Nutting’s Flycatcher on my last day in Arizona.  Unless it’s below -15 F.  In which case I’m cranking up the heat and watching TV in bed.

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99 Degrees Colder

I’m back in Arizona, one of my favorite places.  Driving through Saguaro National Park, I just had to stop by the side of the road and take a few pictures (and admire the Gilded Flickers posing on a cactus).

Sonoran Desert

The saguaros themselves are pretty amazing.  They can grow to be 50-60 feet tall and weigh up to 6 tons.  Saguaros are very slow-growing, and may only grow an inch total in their first 8 years of life.  They are considered fully mature by the time they reach about 125 years old.

Saguaros

These sunny photos might give you the impression that it’s warm and toasty down here in southern Arizona.  Actually nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, it’s 99 degrees colder than the last time I visited the desert southwest.  When I was here in July, the highest temperature I recorded was 116 F (near the CA/AZ border).  Here’s the snapshot of my car’s thermometer from back in July reading 111 F after sunset:

111 F

And here’s what my car was reading this morning south of Tucson about half an hour after sunrise:

17 F

What a difference a few months make!  Needless to say I am differently attired than when I last explored the canyons of Arizona.  In fact, hiking up Florida Canyon this morning there was more than a dusting of snow on the ground.

Snow in the canyon

Florida Canyon is one of the only places in the United States to see Rufous-capped Warblers.  There are currently at least two individuals wintering there, making this warbler one of the rarest birds in the US.  Ok, so they’re very rare in our country, but they are fairly common from Mexico down through all of Central America and even into Columbia.  Three hours of hiking through the frozen canyon eventually produced excellent looks at this pair of warblers, and one decent photo.

Rufous-capped Warbler

In the afternoon I explored Madera Canyon (one canyon to the southwest from Florida Canyon).  By this time it had warmed up to near freezing, and this White-nosed Coati was on the prowl looking for something good to eat to keep his energy up.

Coati

Normally Coatis are most active at night, venturing out during daylight hours perhaps only near dawn or dusk.  But the cold weather must have encouraged this one (and his buddy, not pictured) to look for extra nutrition during the day.

Also trying to stay warm was this Rosy-faced Lovebird, perching in a mesquite tree near Phoenix.  Lovebirds are native to the southwest – southwest Africa, that is!  They were completely unknown in the Americas until the 20th Century.  However at some point they were introduced to the US as pets.  A few decades ago, some of them escaped in the Phoenix area, and a feral population has become established here.

Rosy-faced Lovebird

Now, you can’t count your neighbor’s escaped parakeet as a wild bird.  But non-native “exotic” species can become permanently established here (think House Sparrows, Starlings, and Rock Pigeons – aka pigeons in your local city park).  And when escaped birds form long-lasting stable populations over the course of several decades (which could be dozens of generations of birds), they become countable.

I realize that I spend a lot of time blogging about very rare or unusual species.  I think it’s natural to be drawn to the rare or special birds, and to spend time looking for them at the expense of the common critters in your back yard.  Most people find a thrill in seeking novel ideas and experiences.  But I thought I would close tonight with a shout out to a decidedly common, not-very-glamorous, but still handsome bird – the Ring-necked Duck.  I saw this one in the same Phoenix park where the lovebirds where hanging out.

Ring-necked Duck

Yes, a much better name for this bird would be Ring-billed Duck.  It does also have a ring around its neck, but it is very hard to see unless you are holding the duck in your hand.  Don’t try this at home though, because ducks bite.  Alas, the “ring-necked” name is a hold over from the days in which most ornithology was done with a shotgun instead of a pair of binoculars.  Naturalists would “collect” a specimen, study it, describe it in a scholarly article, and name it.  Because they studied it “in the hand,” these naturalists often gave birds names that refer to characteristics that are not so obvious to a more distant observer of actual live critters.

I only have a couple more days left of my trip, and then I get to go home and spend some time with my family – which I am very much looking forward to.

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California Hills and Harbors

I’m finishing up my brief stay in California.  Yesterday, I drove through an area called the Panoche Hills (west of Fresno).  It was beautiful country, and I didn’t capture any photos that did the magnificent scenery of the area justice.  Here’s my best one:

Panoche Valley

My main reason for visiting this region was to stop by Mercy Hot Springs, a local resort.

Mercy Hot Springs

In addition to hot and cold pools of mineral water that you can soak your body in, Mercy Hot Springs is also home to a wintering colony of Long-eared Owls.  I had already tried to find Long-eareds in four other locations in Washington and California, but they had eluded me thus far.  This time was different.  I found both owl pellets and the owls that crafted them.  True to form, these Long-eared Owls were nestled up in some fairly dense foliage, but I was able to get good looks at them through my telescope and also get a few photos.

Longeared Owl2
Long-eareds are the tenth different species of owl I have recorded on my big year – and I’ve actually posted pictures of seven of those species on this blog.  Not too bad, if I do say so myself.  Most species of owls are hard to find and hard to see.  There are nine more species that occur annually in North America, and I’m hoping to find at least a few more before the year is up.

Today I drove down to Monterey.  I had never visited this area before, and was impressed with its natural beauty.  I spent a couple hours just watching the wildlife in the Monterey Harbor.

Monterey Harbor

Highlights for me were two Sea Otters lounging on their backs munching something (sea urchins?), dozens of California Sea Lions, about 100 dolphins frolicking just beyond the jetty, a quick look at a Gray Whale (inside the jetty!), and a couple dozen species of birds.

Sea lions

Unusual birds for the area included Northern Fulmars (usually seen out in the pelagic zone miles from shore) and an Arctic Loon (that should be wintering in Siberia right now).  I got a few photos of the Arctic Loon:

Arctic Loon1

Arctic Loon3

 

This Common Murre also swam by close enough to have its picture taken.  It is already molting from its winter plumage into its breeding plumage.

Common Murre

Most birds molt twice a year, and some (like the Common Murre) actually grow different colored feathers depending on the season.  In the early fall, this Murre replaced many of the dark feathers on its head with white ones, so that the chin and throat area were snow white.  Now you can see that most of the white feathers below the bill have been replaced with dark ones for the spring and summer.  The mottled appearance indicates that the replacement process is not yet complete.

After spending much of the morning watching wild animals, I drove over to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It was impressive – I especially enjoyed seeing a school of one-ton tuna race around the open ocean tank.  The leafy sea dragons and the sand dollars were pretty cool too.

Sand dollars

Tomorrow I’m taking the 6:10am flight to Phoenix.  Gotta get some rest…

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Wild Goose Chase in New York City

When I sat down to make my list of “must see” places to go nature-watching during my Big Year, a few spots sprang quickly to the top of my list: Florida’s Everglades National Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the Capitol State Forest south of Olympia, the Bronx, and Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  Ok, I’m just kidding about the Bronx.  If you would have told me last month that I would be making a special trip to the Bronx to go birding, I would have laughed hysterically and then told you that it wasn’t bloody likely.  The funny thing about really unlikely things is that occasionally they happen anyway despite their long odds.

Thus I found myself in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx (not far from Yonkers) a few days ago with my spotting scope and binoculars.  I always giggle whenever I say “Yonkers,” but I don’t quite know why.  Ironically I was already planning on spending a day in the Bronx, at the famous Bronx High School of Science (less than a mile from Van Cortlandt Park!), but my school visit would last all day and leave me no time for a wild goose chase.

The goose in question is a Barnacle Goose.  Like Lapwings and Little Egrets, Barnacle Geese normally occur in Eurasia.  Perhaps, like the Lapwing, this goose was blown in by Superstorm Sandy.  Or maybe she was trying to take the A train down to 49th St to visit her Aunt Maude, and missed the entrance to the subway.  In any event, the chase was on for this wild goose.  At least I hoped it was wild.  Barnacle Geese are occasionally kept in captivity: at zoos, animal parks, duck farms, etc.  In fact, the second largest duck farm in North America is on Long Island (you can find out if one-legged ducks swim in circles at their website – but I could not find any information about whether they also raise Barnacle Geese).  As I have mentioned previously, you can only tick the bird if it’s wild – domesticates, avian inmates, and escapees don’t count.

Walking through the park, I spied a couple hundred Canada Geese, Mallards, and Hooded Mergansers cruising the north end of the lake.  After sorting through them for a few minutes, I found my bird (who I refer to fondly as Barney).

Barnacle Goose

Barney is one spiffy looking goose, I have to say.  I checked for signs that Barney might have escaped from captivity: no leg bands were visible, and Barney’s wings were not clipped.  Barney also seemed fairly wary, and did not come waddling up to me to see if I had any cracked corn.  None of this proves that Barney flew in from Iceland and not from a Long Island duck farm, but the available evidence seems to favor a wild origin.

Barney swimming

There were a few other wild (and semi-wild) critters knocking around the park, several of whom did come up to see about that cracked corn.  Sorry, fella.

NYC Black Squirrel

On my way out of town and back to Boston, I stopped at Hammonasset Beach State Park in CT for a couple of hours.  There I picked up some fun birds, like this Brant:

Brant

Like almost all of the New England beaches, there were a healthy number of Great Black-backed Gulls, like this one:

Great Black-backed Gull

I also stopped at the jetty, and was able to pick out one Purple Sandpiper.

Hammonasset Jetty

Purple Sandpipers are the eastern cousin to the Rock Sandpipers, like the one I saw a few weeks ago at Ediz Hook.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

Like the goose, this Purple Sandpiper is pretty spiffy for being primarily gray, white, and black.

I did visit several schools on this trip including Groton and Bronx Science, both of which were very interesting and gave me lots of food for thought.  I really appreciate the teachers and staff hosting me there, and I will post some reflections of my visits when I’ve had a little more time to process my experiences.

 

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Balmy Cape Cod

Balmy – “pleasantly warm” and also “foolish and eccentric”

Yes and yes.  Well, foolish and eccentric is a little harsh, but I found Cape Cod to be a bit quirky and eclectic, but in a mostly friendly and cheerful way.  Also, a warm front had pushed out the frigid arctic air that had been blasting me on Cape Ann, leaving sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures.  Because Cape Cod is surrounded by water, it is blessed with a more moderate climate than rest of Massachusetts.  Still, highs in the mid-60s in the first week of December were really unusual, even for the Cape.  I made the most of the weather and the delightfully odd offerings of Cape Cod.

One of the first unusual things I found on the Cape was this little fella.

Little Egret

It looks like a Snowy Egret, which would be unusual on Cape Cod in December. But it is, in fact, a lot more unusual that that.  This bird is a Little Egret, the Snowy’s Eurasian cousin.  Little Egrets are extremely rare visitors to North America.  Someone located it in Hyannis Port, just a mile or two from the famous Kennedy compound, a few days before my arrival.

Many North American birds have “sister species” in the Old World – closely related genetic relatives that descended from a common ancestor in the relatively recent past.  Little Egrets look very similar to Snowy’s with a couple of subtle differences.  Little Egrets have slightly larger, thicker bills and their lores (the area between the eyes and bill) are gray instead of yellow.

I spent the day traveling up the Cape, by which I guess I mean “down” the Cape.  In the local parlance, the “upper cape” is the southern end (the “biceps” of the arm) while the “lower cape” is the northern end (the “fist”).  I have to admit that this seems totally backwards to me (c.f. Michigan’s southern Lower Peninsula and its northern Upper Peninsula!).  Those balmy Cape Codders.  Coddians?  Coddites?

Eventually I reached Provincetown, the small town on the northern (lower??) tip of Cape Cod.  This is a fishing village and tourist spot, and in the off season it felt quiet and peaceful.

Provincetown

Provincetown is actually the very first place that the Pilgrims landed in the New World.  They stayed in the area for several weeks, signing the Mayflower Compact there before traveling on to Plymouth.  The tall tower in the picture below is the Pilgrim Monument, commemorating their landing in Provincetown nearly 400 years ago.  At over 250 feet tall, it is the “tallest all-granite structure in the United States.”  Hmmmm.

Provincetown

I also located the tallest Christmas tree made entirely of lobster pots in New England:

Lobster Pot Christmas Tree

The lower Cape is a great place to go birding.  Razorbills, a relative of the auks and murres, are common here.  I saw several in the area, although they often stayed just a bit too far out for good pictures.

Razorbill in distance
Young Razorbill

I also saw some dolphins and a whale:

Dolphins

Cape Cod Whale

I made two visits to Race Point at the very tip of the Cape.  One in the afternoon when the skies were dark and threatening.  Hundreds of scoters and mergansers were racing the wind above calm seas that stretched nearly 270 degrees around me at the point.

Race Point

I returned the next morning at dawn to see Kittiwakes and Razorbills diving for their breakfast in the waves.

Dawn at Race Point

Dawn at Race Point

After several balmy days on Cape Cod, I felt like this Common Loon – ready for a nap!

Snoozing Loon

But there was no time to lounge around.  I had scheduled visits to several well-known schools, and was eager to spend some time with their teachers and students.

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Ptrying for Ptarmigan, Ptake Ptwo

Three days after my unsuccessful trip to Mt. Rainier to see White-tailed Ptarmigan, I noticed that someone posted on Tweeters (the Washington birding listserv) that she had seen ptarmigan along the same Mt. Fremont trail a few days after I was there.  It was obvious that the birds were still around, even though I missed them over Labor Day weekend.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the time for seeing these birds at all during my big year was growing seriously short.  I decided to try for them one more time, so yesterday I trekked 90 miles back to Sunrise for Round Two.

The day was again spectacularly beautiful.  I was surprised at how much snow had melted from around Frozen Lake in only six days.

I was also treated to great views of American Pika (not to be confused with Pica, that strange disorder in which people eat dirt, chalk, and rocks).  Pika are lagomorphs, which is to say that they are closely related to rabbits and hares.

This little guy was alternately collecting herbaceous goodies and storing them in his burrow, and sitting on a rock and chirping at me.

I also saw more goats on my trek up Mt. Fremont.  There are two herds which have been roaming the landscape near Sunrise this summer.

As I approached the Mt. Fremont lookout, I turned up the sensitivity on my ptarmigan scanner.  An hour passed, and no ptarmigan.  As I was beginning to lose hope of seeing this species, I thought that maybe I saw a ptarmigan-shaped rock down the ridge just past a little bend in the trail.  Was that really a ptarmigan, or just a rock?  It wasn’t moving.  I needed to get closer to tell for sure.

I stumbled down the trail, trying to keep an eye on that ptarmigan-shaped rock.  I was so intent on watching this rock that I didn’t immediately notice what was around that little bend in the trail.

“Goat!” I yelped, as I rounded the corner and came nearly face-to-face with a fully grown Mountain Goat.  While these fuzzy alpine denizens seem cute and cuddly, a mountain goat killed a man a couple years ago in Olympic National Park.  They can be aggressive and dangerous when provoked.  It’s best to keep one’s distance from them even when they are calm, to avoid habituating them to humans.  I saw that there were in fact quite a number of goats loafing here, including some kids born this spring.  I had found part of the second herd.

I gently eased my way back around the corner.  The goats went back to their snoozing.  But what about that ptarmigan?  I scanned the area, and saw this:

Can you spot the ptarmigan in the photo above?  It’s dang hard to see!  Eventually, it stood up for a moment, and I got good looks at an adult female White-tailed Ptarmigan.  They are usually quite tame, but I couldn’t get any closer because the goats were between me and the ptarmigan.  Here’s my best long-range photo, zoomed and cropped:

After 20 minutes of watching her, I headed for home.  The moon was rising over the ridge as I descended.  It was a good day.

 

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