Tag Archives: extreme birding

Denali

Denali landscape

I had heard a lot about Denali National Park in Alaska, but none of that prepared me for the sheer magnitude and majesty of this place.  Denali is six million acres of protected wilderness in the midst of some of the most breath-taking geology in all of North America.  Almost everything about it is at least a little fantastical.

Denali peekaboo

For starters, I’m just a couple hundred miles south of the arctic circle.  Sunset tonight is at 11:51pm, which is followed by several hours of twilight, and then sunrise again at 3:51am.  The sun rises in the north (NNE, actually) in an almost horizontal motion, slowing creeping above the horizon.  After five hours or so, the sun is halfway up in the eastern sky.  By midday (five hours after that) it’s swung around nearly overhead and slightly to the south.  For the next 10 hours it treks westward and then northward, finally setting again in the NNW, not too far from where it rose.

Even though tomorrow is the first day of June, in some ways it still feels like winter here.  The Denali lowlands got 9 inches of slow last week.  While daytime highs have been climbing into the 70s, I see ice and snow all around me, sometimes several feet deep.

Denali landscape

Just getting here was an adventure.  Denali is 250 miles north of Anchorage, most of it on a two-lane road, the George Parks Highway.  I was swerving around moose in the middle of the road less than 10 minutes from the Anchorage airport, and things only got wilder from there.  On my journey north, I could see that spring is indeed late this year.  Many of the rivers were still in various stages of breakup, as the long winter’s ice cracked and buckled under the warming sun and the surrounding rush of meltwater.

River Breakup

I stood on the bridge over this river, and watched icebergs of various sizes and shapes float by, as thunderous cracks upstream heralded the arrival of new chunks of loose ice barreling downstream.

River ice

I stayed in the tiny town of Healy, about a dozen miles north of Denali’s main entrance road.

Healy

Aside from this sign, there are a few hotels, two restaurants, and one gas station in Healy.

There are a couple of different ways to experience Denali National Park.

Me at Denali

There is a visitor’s center and some trails right at the entrance, and you can drive in the first 15 miles on the park road in your own car.  But if you want to go beyond the Savage River at milepost 15, you need to take an official park shuttle or bus.  The narrow and sometimes treacherous road that snakes west for 92 miles just isn’t built to handle the 400,000 people who visit Denali annually.  I bought a ticket to Toklat at MP 53; the road beyond that was still closed due to snow.  At 7am, I boarded the bus for the seven-hour round trip.

Denali bus

While Denali does have some interesting birds, the highlight here is mammals.  And what a highlight they are!  In two days, I got great looks at Dall’s sheep, moose, caribou, collared pika, hoary marmots, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrels, a gray wolf, and a lynx.

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare – still turning from his winter whites to his summer browns

Dalls sheep

Dall’s sheep, with babies

Caribou

Caribou

Bad moose

WHY did my camera freak out and refuse to focus right when mama moose and her two cute mooselings appeared right next to the road??  I guess I’ll never know.

While Denali is the best place in North America to see large mammals, I saw a few birds too – including possibly my new favorite bird, the Willow Ptarmigan.

Willow Ptarmigan

They are just so comical and charismatic, perched in the top of spruce trees and muttering their cackling chicken-language under their breath.  I found them utterly charming.

Willow Ptarmigan in the rain

Even aside from the animals, there was so much to look at in Denali.  The landscape itself was breath taking.

 

 

Denali landscape

I even got to see Denali itself (or Mt. McKinley, as the U.S. Congress still insists on it being called).  This 20,320 foot peak is the tallest in North America.  During the spring and summer months it’s often wrapped in clouds (it creates it own weather), but for a few hours yesterday you could see its glaciated summits.

Denali

And this was from some 80 miles away!  Later it rained, and I got to see my first Denali rainbow.

Denali rainbow

With near 24-hour daylight, it’s tempting to stay up all night walking the trails, reading my book, or planning the rest of my Alaska trip – but I think I will force myself to go to bed now.  It’s been 3 days since I’ve seen darkness (the blinds in my room don’t close all the way), but my body still needs sleep.  I think.  Right?

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Dangers of Southeastern Arizona

My post about the Dangers of the Everglades has turned out to be hugely popular – I guess lots of people Google that phrase.  With that in mind, I present this encore performance: Dangers of Arizona!  All the danger!  Double the Signage!  You may not survive!  Especially if you are a car….

Dangerous Road Ahead

Dangerous road?!  But, hey – it’s a Wildlife Sanctuary!

Limited Maintenance

Just sit back and relax, for the next hour or so.

Curvy Rd next 19 mi

Hope you like curves.

Road disintegrates

I love this one.  Is that the sign for the road disintegrating?

Not a semi truck route

I had to pull over I was laughing so hard when I saw this one.  Not a semi truck route, eh?  This sign was MILES after the other ones (above) up a rocky, one-lane dirt road high in the mountains.   Thank you, US Forest Service, for this amazingly helpful sign!

Primitive Road

Does this mean that I use normal paved roads at someone else’s risk?

No services 74 mi

74 miles?!  That would get you from New York City to northeastern Philadelphia.

Smuggling

Watch for smugglers.

Wildfire Area

And for wildfires.

Fire Damage

Even AFTER the fires are over there’s danger!

Dusty car

There is no sign warning that your car will get very, very, very dusty.

One Lane Switchbacks

Which would make passing other vehicles coming in the opposite direction very problematic.  Luckily, I didn’t see any.

Polluted Sewage Water

I like how they specify that this particular sewage water is the polluted kind.

Beware of Bears

Advice #1 on this notice: Avoid Confrontation.  Sage….

Bear Damage

In case you missed the first bear sign.  Speaking of vehicle damage, the vultures of Arizona don’t mess around with merely chewing up your windshield wipers.

Vulture Emergency Power

They have been known to cut the emergency power at the most inconvenient moments.

All of this dangerous outdoor travel made me want to stop at this nice little nature museum on the outskirts of Portal, AZ.

Dangerous Venomous Reptiles

Hey, what the heck?  Dangerous AND venomous, eh?

All of these photos were taken by me within the span of less than three days last week.  My suggestion for a new state motto:

Arizona: bad roads; good signage.

 Sign Yall Come Back

Ok, I think I will.

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The Colima Warblers of Big Bend

I will confess that I didn’t come to Big Bend just for the scenery.

Toll Mountain

I also came to search for the Colima Warbler.  There are about 52 regularly occurring species of wood warblers in the US and Canada (depending on how you count), and I have already seen 48 of them since June of 2012.  The three hardest to get are the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (check), the south-of-the-border vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler (check), and the Colima.  Colima Warblers are not endangered like Kirtland’s, but almost all of their natural range lies south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps a few dozen trickle across the border to breed in the high altitude mountains of Big Bend.  In order to see a Colima, though, you need to hike up to where they live.

Up there.

To Pinnacles Trail

It’s not a trek for the faint of heart.  The traditional spot to find Colimas is Boot Spring, about 9 miles roundtrip from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin.  The hike starts at over a mile above sea level, and climbs another 1800 feet or so, mostly in the first 3 miles.  Not being as physically fit as some hikers, I started before dawn so I could reach the Colima’s habitat while they would still be active and singing in the cool mid-morning hours.

I started up the Pinnacles Trail.  The turnoff to Boot Spring is just past the junction with the Colima Trail.

Pinnacles Trail Sign

On the way up I listened to many calling Gnatcatchers, and admired the blooming cacti.

Cactus

The trail is well-maintained, although it is steep and rocky in places, and the switchbacks near the crest are tiring.

trail

As I climbed, I could see out over the entire Chisos Basin area.  The morning sun bathed everything in a golden glow.

Halfway up Pinnacles Trail

I stopped to rest and eat a little trail mix, and a chummy group of Mexican Jays came down to request that I share some peanuts with them.  They were not pleased when I refused.

Mexican Jay

Looking up, I could see the Pinnacles formation.  The end of the strenuous climbing portion of my hike was in sight.

Pinnacles

Near the top, I heard a warbler singing!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but then I saw it: a large brownish-gray warbler with orange undertail coverts.

Colima Warbler

That’s birder-speak for “it has an orange butt.”  Going a little higher, I got a slightly better view of the rest of him while he was busy singing.  Note the white eye-ring and the faint chestnut cap.

Colima Warbler

Yes, my point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the job here, but I got a few ‘record shots.’

I climbed the rest of the way to the top, and ate a congratulatory granola bar while I enjoyed the view.

View from top

I hadn’t made it to Boot Spring yet, so I decided to keep going.  The trail leveled out a bit here, so the hiking was much easier.  And I could start to see the other side of the Chisos Mountains.

Other side of Mtns

After another mile or so, I saw Boot Rock (in the foreground):

The Boot

Boot Rock, of course, looks like an upside down cowboy boot – and gives its name to Boot Canyon and Boot Spring.  Boot Rock is a hoodoo, a tall vertical rock formation left behind when the softer rock around it weathered and eroded away.

Near Boot Spring I found many of the expected high elevation birds: tanagers, flycatchers, and vireos – but no more Colima Warblers.  It was later in the day by this point, so it’s possible they just weren’t singing as much anymore.  I also found this guy lounging in my path.  I believe it’s a Texas Alligator Lizard.  It was quite large, and not very reluctant to get out of my way.

Texas Alligator Lizard

I didn’t make it all the way to the South Rim, but my various exploratory excursions and back-tracking amounted to at least 11 to 12 miles, by my rough estimation.  My feet were killing me by the time I got back down, and I had managed to consume all 2.5 liters of water I brought with me.  I took a short nap, and got up in time for a big dinner and one more classic Big Bend sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend

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Big Bend National Park

Toll Mountain

Despite leaving Seattle over a week ago, this is my first blog post of my trip (and I’m going home tomorrow!).  My lack of productivity on the blog front is due to two factors.  The first is that I spent the first four days on an odyssey to Big Bend National Park, a place of spectacular geology and surprising biodiversity – and extremely limited internet availability.  The second factor is that I’ve spent the last couple days battling some of kind of nasty bug, which I thought might be Hantavirus or deadly Valley Fever, but my wife thinks is the stomach flu.  She’s probably right.  Again.  Thank goodness.

Anyhow, back to Big Bend.  Some places are in the middle of nowhere.  Not Big Bend.  In order to reach it, you have to first drive to the middle of nowhere, and then keep going for another couple hundred miles.  It’s at the End of Nowhere.  I’ve been lots of places during my travels this year with no cell phone service.  But I think Big Bend is the only place I’ve been with no cell service anywhere within 75 miles.

Big Bend Desert

Big Bend National Park encompasses an area over 800,000 acres, making it slightly smaller than Olympic NP and slightly bigger than Yosemite.  Yet not many people make it all the way out to Big Bend.  Olympic NP has 10 visitors for each one person who travels to Big Bend.  Great Smokey Mountains NP has 33.  I had to traverse four time zones just to get here: leaving Seattle (PDT), arriving Tucson (MST), driving through New Mexico (MDT), and finally traveling south through the Trans-Pecos region of Texas (CDT).  I was confused and exhausted arriving in Van Horn, TX for the night, as it was an hour later than I thought it should be.  It turns out that Texas has 254 counties, 252 of which are on Central Time and 2 of which are not.  Really, Texas?!

But the trip was worth it, for the scenery alone.

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Knob

Unfortunately, these tiny pictures do not begin to do justice to the vastness of the landscape and the sheer magnitude of the mountains.

And then there was the wildlife.  I was constantly reminded that I was in Black Bear and Mountain Lion country.

Mountain Lion Warning Sign

Bear Country Sign

I love how we’re supposed to both “avoid carrying odorous food” and also “carry out trash and left-over food.”  I totally understand the reasoning for each, but don’t you think trash and leftovers might qualify as “odorous food”?

Returning from a hike, a ranger asked me if I’d seen any mountain lions.  I said no.  She said, “well, you can bet that one saw you!”  Then she pointed to the bear and lion tracker:

Bear and Mtn Lion Sightings

While unfortunately (or fortunately?) I didn’t run into any large carnivores, I did find plenty of wildlife.  Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) made an appearance every evening.

Javelina

A pair of Common Blackhawks were nesting near the Rio Grande.  My photo of the birds themselves didn’t come out (it was almost sunset), but here’s their personal sign:

Black Hawk Sign

A Greater Roadrunner sat high in a dead tree and sang his mournful territorial song:

Roadrunner in tree

This female Blue-throated Hummingbird was squeezing in one more snack before bed.

Blue-throated Hummer

And tarantulas scurried across the desert, out for their evening meal:

Tarantula

Hot on their tail, tarantula hawks roamed the desert.  The tarantula hawk is a type of parasitic wasp that uses tarantulas as its nursery.

Tarantula Hawk

The female tarantula hawk stings a tarantula, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it.  The wasp then drags the tarantula back to its burrow and lays an egg inside.  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva eats the tarantula alive.  Yikes!  Tarantula hawks usually don’t bother humans, but their sting has been rated the #2 worst insect sting in the world by the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  I stayed away from the tarantula hawks.  Far away.

While I’m always a sucker for interesting fauna, I spent a little time checking out the flora as well.  Agaves are common in Big Bend.

Agave

These succulents flower only once, at the end of their lives, sending up a huge stalks to pollinate their flowers and disperse their fruit.

Agave Stalk

Although they are sometimes known as “century plants,” most species of agave only live a couple decades or so.

My first full day in Big Bend was a feast for the senses, and I had to drag myself back to my room after enjoying an amazing sunset.

Big Bend Desert at Sunset

Big Bend Sunset

I needed all of my energy for tomorrow’s epic hike, to see one of the smallest birds in one of the most distant corners of one of the most remote national parks in the country.

 

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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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Dangers of the Everglades

Everglades NP

I recently risked life and limb to spend a day among the many terrors of Everglades National Park.  Sure, the National Park Service would like you to believe that visiting their little watery empire on the southernmost tip of mainland Florida is perfectly safe.  But I’m here to tell you the truth.  If you can handle it.  It’s okay if you want to skip this post – it’s the scariest one I’ve written all year.

The danger that comes immediately to mind is, of course, giant alligators.  I saw several that were close to eight feet long.

Gator1

They sit there, close to the path, watching you.  And they have sharp teeth, which they advertise by leaving their gaping mouths open for hours at a time.

Gator

I understand that once a man was actually bitten by an alligator in the Everglades!  Maybe back in 1967 or something.  And all he was doing was teasing it and trying to feed it chicken scraps by hand.  They’re dangerous beasts, I tell you!

Do not approach alligators

Of course, there are other deadly creatures in the Everglades as well.  See if you can spot them in the photo below:

Bear Lake Trail

This is Bear Lake Trail.  I walked it for several hours to find Mangrove Cuckoo (found one, near the end!).  But the cuckoo isn’t scary (nor is it in this photo).  The dangerous thing in this photo is the mosquitoes.  All 5,849 of them.  Giant Everglades Mosquitoes.  Thanks to the 100% DEET bug spray I was wearing, only 5,199 managed to bite me.  Note to the Puget Sound Red Cross: I will be postponing my next whole blood donation for about 6 weeks.

As if the mosquitoes and alligators aren’t enough, there are the spiders!  And they are huge!  And scary!  And amazingly cool.

Large spider

And did I mention snakes?!

Snake Bight

Ok, actually I didn’t see any snakes.  The sign is a bit of Everglades humor.  A “bight” is actually a shallow bay.  Heh, heh… funny huh?  Snake Bight?  Here’s a bit more Everglades humor:

Rock Reef Pass

Yep, south Florida is pretty flat.  Almost literally as flat as a pancake.  [Ok, you could imagine a theoretical pancake that was bumpier than the Everglades – use your imagination!]  I’ve been across several passes in my big year: Snoqualmie Pass at 3022 feet, White Pass at 4501 feet, and Washington Pass at 5477 feet.  But this is the lowest pass I’ve crossed all year.  And dangerous, too! Especially if it were hurricane season.  Which I guess it’s not.  But still.

Ok, back to more danger.  Um, cowbirds.  Very dangerous.  Well, not dangerous to humans, mostly, but very dangerous to many species of songbirds like warblers.  Cowbirds are brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in the nests of other smaller birds.  The bigger baby cowbirds outcompete the other nestlings for food, and may even shove the other birds out of the nest.  As a result, the warblers end up spending the breeding season raising a cowbird chick instead of their own offspring.  I saw many Brown-headed Cowbirds, like this one:

Brown-headed Cowbird

This is the same species of cowbird I saw being trapped when I visited Kirtland’s Warbler habitat last summer.

But the Everglades also has another species of cowbird, the Shiny Cowbird.  This is a species normally found in Central and South America, but a couple individuals have made their way all the up to south Florida (possibly by way of the Caribbean).  I saw a couple of these Shiny Cowbirds near the Flamingo Visitor’s Center at the southern end of the Everglades:

Shiny Cowbird

I see that you’ve made it this far in my scariest blog post ever.  But I have to warn you, the scariest part is yet to come.  It is such a terrifying phenomenon that there were warning signs EVERYWHERE about these creatures.  So what is more menacing than alligators, mosquitoes, and cowbirds combined?

Vultures will damage your vehicles

Yes, vultures.  But not just any vultures.  Everglades windshield wiper-eating vultures.  Apparently they like to chew on rubber things.  Like car parts.

Tarps for vultures sign

How scary is that?!?

I won’t even mention the fact that I think a bird pooped on my hat.  I hope there’s not a strangler fig seed in there.  Or else in 40 to 50 years, I might be entombed in Ficus roots!

Strangler Fig

[Ominous music fading in…]

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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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Owling on Bainbridge Island

I took the 2:10am ferry to Bainbridge Island this morning to meet Jamie Acker and six other participants for an owling fieldtrip that spanned the entire island and lasted until dawn.  Jamie has banded Saw-whet Owls on Bainbridge for well over a decade, and is very knowledgeable about the habits and natural history of all of the owls on the island.

We stopped at numerous spots, watching and listening to Saw-whets, Barred Owls, and Great Horned Owls.  It was thrilling to see these nocturnal raptors up close in their own habitat.  Of course, what blog post of mine about owls would be complete without some ridiculously bad owl photos (hey, it was dark!).  Here’s a Barred Owl, a relatively large owl at nearly two feet long and close to two pounds:

Barred Owl

And the smallest owl we saw this morning, a Saw-whet Owl, which is about 8 inches long and weighs in at a little less than 3 ounces (about 25% less than the weight of the new iPhone).

Saw-whet Owl

 Ya, not great photos, I know.  But we had great looks at many of these little hooters.

Another of the field trip participants, Scott Ramos, shot some video of owls that you can watch on youtube.  Barred Owls actually EAT Saw-whets, which is problematic if you are trying to band the little owls when Barred Owls are close at hand.  Jamie combats this problem by feeding the Barred Owls mice while he is banding.  This keeps them busy long enough for the little Saw-whets to get away safely.  You can watch Jamie feeding the Barred Owls on our trip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfRuzimr1WQ – if you listen closely, you can hear me say “whoa-ho-ho!” about 25 seconds into the video.

If you are interested in taking an owling field trip of your own, it’s easy.  This trip was organized by the WOS, the Washington Ornithological Society.  Anyone can join the WOS for only $25 a year – and membership entitles you to go on the many awesome field trips.  The WOS also has an amazing annual conference with speakers, workshops, and more field trips.  You can find more information at their website: http://www.wos.org

Your local Audubon Society also offers field trips, including owling.  Check out Seattle Audubon (http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas) or East Lake Audubon (http://eastsideaudubon.org) to learn about upcoming field trips, classes, and events.

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