Tag Archives: extreme birding

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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Taking a Chance Aboard the Monte Carlo

The next morning I got up early and headed to the Westport marina where I boarded the Monte Carlo.  This 50-foot vessel is used by Westport Seabirds to take birders 35 miles out into the Pacific Ocean to Grays Canyon, a deepwater feature on the edge of the continental shelf.  By 7am we were casting off and heading out to sea.  Fog enshrouded the vessel for a while, but we broke free into the sunlight a couple miles out and were treated to a day of nice weather and calm seas.

We soon came upon some birds of the open ocean, like Sooty Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-petrels, and Northern Fulmars.  These birds are members of the order Procellariiformes, pelagic birds that include petrels, albatrosses, and shearwaters.  They are sometimes called “tubenoses” because they all share extra tube-like openings just above their bills, as you can see on this Northern Fulmar.

These tubes lead to an olfactory-sensing organ, giving these seabirds a remarkably good sense of smell – useful for finding food out on the endless ocean. After a while we spotted our first Black-footed Albatrosses.  Black-foots considered “small” for albatrosses, but they still boast 7-foot wingspans.

In the distance, we spotted a fishing vessel, and our captain headed towards it.  Many pelagic species often follow fishing ships hoping to pick up scraps, and as we approached we saw Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, many albatrosses, fulmars, and a herd of California Gulls.

We threw out some fish scraps of our own, and were soon surrounded by tubenoses.  The albatrosses came right up to our boat.

On the way back, we spotted a number of new species, including Sabine’s Gull, South Polar Skua, and a jaeger.  Motoring back into the Westport harbor about 4pm, we passed a huge flock of Marbled Godwits roosting on the breakwater.

Although we didn’t spot any super-rarities, the excellent viewing conditions, calm seas, and mostly cooperative birds made for a very successful trip.  And best of all, we didn’t have engine trouble in the middle of the ocean, like my more adventurous SoCal pelagic trip back in July.

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Jetty Walking

It’s September, and shorebird migration is in full swing.  Sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes, and godwits are winging their way south.  After spending the breeding season in the high Arctic tundra, these little guys are traveling south, some heading all the way to New Zealand!  If you want to catch them as they whiz by Washington state, the best place to be is the outer coast.  I recently headed west to Grays Harbor County for a couple days to see what I could dig up.

My first stop was the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Ponds.  Nothing gets your blood pumping like the morning fog burning off above an azure lagoon of poopy water.  Awesome.  I tallied a number of good birds, including a couple of dozen Pectoral Sandpipers (like the one pictured below).

I also tracked down a Ruff, a rare Asian stray that ended up on the wrong side of the Pacific.

I love the sign posted here.  For MOST people, the “no trespassing” part would be completely superfluous, but serious bird watching need that extra encouragement to STAY OUT.

My next stop was Ocean Shores, specifically the Point Brown jetty at the southwest tip of the peninsula.  I timed my visit for the hour before low tide, because I wasn’t just going TO the jetty, I was going out ON the jetty – close to the end.  It was foggy, but I clamored up the rocks and started picking my way out to the tip, several hundred yards distant.

Many birds are habitat specialists.  Pectorals and Ruffs are perfectly content to walk around in shallow water through the mud and sand, but other species of shorebirds prefer the rocky coastline.  These “rockpipers” use their sharp bills to pry mussels, snails, and barnacles off the rocks while dodging the waves crashing around them.  If you want to see rockpipers, you need to visit the rocky shore habitat, and the Point Brown jetty is one of the most accessible areas of such habitat around.  Of course, “most accessible” is a relative term.  You still have to climb over huge boulders through the ocean spray and bird droppings, and make sure you are off the jetty before the tide rises.  At least one unfortunate birder was washed off the top of the jetty when caught unaware of the rising tide.

About halfway out, I began to catch glimpses of my target species through the fog and spray.

A group of Black Turnstones was milling around, catching a bite to eat and resting on the rocks.  Further out, I saw a Wandering Tattler and more Turnstones.

After about an hour, I was near the end of the jetty, surrounded by Turnstones, Tattlers, and the appropriately named Surfbirds, who were dancing in and out of the powerful waves crashing against the rocks.

At this point I decided to head back in, as low tide had passed and the water would begin rising soon.  I hit several other shorebird hotspots in the afternoon, finding a nice array of adult and juvenile sandpipers in all states of molt.  Most birds shed their feathers in the fall, growing new ones which sometimes show different colors and patterns than the ones they wore in the spring and summer.  The molting birds can take on quite interesting appearances.

I headed to bed early, because I knew what was in store for tomorrow: Monte Carlo!

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Southwest Wrap-Up

I enjoyed my trip to the sun-baked American Southwest, but it’s good to be back in Seattle (where we are currently experiencing a little baking weather of our own, augmented by the fact that we have no air conditioning!).

Total bird species: 183

Total miles driven: 2229

Total miles hiked: 40 (approximately)

Favorite Place: Madera Canyon, AZ

Best bird: Red-billed Tropicbird

Biggest Miss: Mountain Quail and Pinyon Jay

Scariest moment: Engine trouble 80 miles off-shore

Road washouts that curtailed my birding: two

Road washout that I had to somehow navigate to make it back to the airport for my flight back to Seattle: one (pic below!)

I’m hanging out most of August with my family, picking berries with the kids, trying to get my house re-roofed (yea), and catching up on some house and yard work.  September will take me to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and nearby states to explore Cape May and visit some schools.  More then…

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My Idea of a Good Time

You know what would be fun?  To fly down to LA, rent a car, and then drive a couple hundred miles into the deep desert.  Let’s go in late July, when the temps will top out near 120 F.  You can get a sunburn in about 20 minutes.  I know of a particularly desolate area, with a small amount of water.  It smells a bit like a cross between a particularly boggy marsh and a sewage treatment plant.  We can drive the dusty dirt roads while the air condition tries (and fails) to cool the inside of our car.  Why would we do this?  Well to look for a seagull, of course.  And after we’re done we can drive 30 miles back into town for dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the whole area (McDonald’s).  Any takers?

Sometimes I find it hard to explain my hobby.  Many times it’s much easier to say I was in California, um, visiting relatives.  Yeah, that’s it.  But if I wasn’t into bird watching, I certainly never would have visited the Salton Sea, which is a fascinating and bizarre place.  The Salton Sea is a 400 square mile lake in southeastern California, and is less than 10 feet deep in most places.  The water is 50% saltier than sea water, meaning that only the hardiest of fish species can live there.  It was formed by accident a century ago, when efforts began to channel and dike the Colorado river to bring irrigation to this extremely dry part of California.  The mighty Colorado would not be so easily tamed, however, and in 1905 after heavy rains the river broke through the dikes and began to pour into a low-lying rift valley.  For nearly two years, almost the entire flow of the Colorado River poured into this valley, forming the Salton Sea.  Eventually, engineers managed to repair the damage, but not before a new inland sea was formed, one of the largest lakes in western North America.

Birds and wildlife were attracted to this desert oasis, and people too.  During the early and middle part of the 20th Century, the Salton Sea was a popular resort area.  But eventually the lake began to shrink.  Nearby rivers were diverted to provide water for the growing coastal cities, and the inflow of water slowed.  Meanwhile, evaporation removed water at a fierce rate, concentrating the salt that had dissolved from the rocks when the lake was formed.  Now the lake is dying, drying up.

The Red Hill “Marina” is now nearly a quarter mile from the water!

The boat ramp doesn’t quite work anymore.  Actually this picture is pretty deceptive.  That water is just a puddle that ends right around the corner – the lake is actually another 200 yards away!

Plans are underway to try to save the Salton Sea, but with water supplies in the area so scarce its future is uncertain.  It is an accidental creation after all, and not really a natural feature.  But at least for now, it provides many animals an oasis in the desert.  Among birders, it’s known as the only place in the US or Canada to see Yellow-footed Gull.  If you want to see that bird, you have to come here.  A few of these gulls wander up to the Salton Sea, but typically only in late July and August, when it’s nice and toasty.  After 30 minutes of searching, I found a couple.  Note the yellow legs and feet!

But believe me, 30 minutes walking around in 116 F heat (the highest temp my car recorded today) feels more like 30 hours.  It’s so hot and dry, you don’t even feel yourself sweating – the perspiration evaporates almost instantly.  I drank nearly three liters of water (most of a gallon) in less than two hours, and didn’t have to use the restroom.

Of course there’s more here than just gulls!  I didn’t take a lot of photos (it was too dang hot!), but I saw ducks, grebes, terns, coots, cormorants, and thousands of herons and egrets.  Oh, and about 300 American White Pelicans.

Here are a few of them.  Unfortunately this picture doesn’t really do them justice.  They are magnificent birds, with a ten-foot wingspan.  That’s about 3 feet more than the height of Lakeside’s 6’10” Upper School Director, Than Healy.  There aren’t many things with a wingspan longer than Than.

Oh yes, and the Burrowing Owls.  Too cute!  They spend their days mostly underground, and come out at dusk to look for food.  I saw a little colony of maybe a dozen of them.  There were a few reptiles too, like this four-foot snake.

A California Kingsnake, maybe?

After the sun set, I got back into my car, and put it in drive.  By then, the temperature had plunged to 111 F.  Who doesn’t love a cool evening breeze?

1103.9 miles driven, and an unknown number remaining.  The next morning, I began the long drive to Tucson, passing this sugar plant.

As I mentioned, this whole area is a rift valley.  Water poured into the valley in 1905 because it is at such low elevation.  The shore of the sea is about 230 feet below sea level!  This sugar plant, 20 miles away, is also below sea level – note the marking (visible just above the power line on the left) showing where sea level is compared to the height of the building.

Tomorrow – Arizona!

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Extreme California

I’ve been in California for 5 days, yet this is my first blog post.  That’s mostly due to the fact that I’ve been out of range of the internet – in one case almost 100 miles out of range!  And it’s been kind of a wild time.  I survived a trip to the deep ocean, a 25-mile drive through a sand track in the desert, and daytime temps well exceeding 100 F.  And tomorrow it’s really going to start getting hot!  But first things first…

I flew into LAX on Friday, and spent the day seeing the endangered California Gnatcatcher and fighting the absolutely horrendous LA traffic.  Remind me not to complain the next time I’m grousing about sitting on the 520 bridge for a mere 90 minutes.  On Saturday I got up at 4am for the drive to Santa Barbara, where I had a ticket for the Condor Express.  The Condor Express is a 75-foot fast catamaran, and its task today was to take several dozen avid birders on a 14-hr trip to the deep ocean, some 100 miles into the Pacific.  Way out in water two miles deep is the only place you can find birds of the deep water or pelagic ocean.  I was stocked up on Dramamine, warm clothes, and saltines.

The trip was amazing.  We chugged out past the Channel Islands, seeing several species of shearwaters, storm-petrels, and even a Scripp’s Murrelet (a tiny black & white seabird somewhat related to puffins).  The trip was a bit rough, with 12-foot seas (which the Condor Express took at 25 knots, creating incredible spray and bow shocks).  By 8am I was thoroughly soaked with salt water (my over-the-top armored and water-resistent cell phone case doesn’t seem like such a bad purchase now), and my legs were getting a workout as I tried to absorb the heaving and rolling motion of the boat.  I managed to alternately munch a few saltines with one hand (you had to hang on to a railing with the other hand, or end up being thrown to the deck) and wipe the spray off my glasses while tracking an albatross with a 7-foot wingspan glide almost effortlessly past the vessel.  A special treat was the appearance of a rare Red-billed Tropicbird at our “turn-around point,” over 100 miles southwest of Santa Barbara.  In the category of “not a treat” was the engine trouble the boat experienced on the way home (how does one rescue 75 people who are stuck 80 miles out at sea, I wondered at one point).  But we made it back safely to Santa Barbara (several hours late), and I finally made it to bed well after midnight.  Still, I consider it $195 and a box of saltines well-spent.  Needless to say, there are no photos to post from this trip.

After another day exploring Ventura County, it was off to Kern County, about 100 miles northeast of LA.  I usually think about California as absolutely stuffed with people, but the vast tracks of land that unfolded before me reminded me that almost all of the population of this big state are crammed into a few corners of it.

I was also reminded that southeastern California is dry.  Really, really dry.

Most of the rivers are dry here by late July, and deserts stretch in almost every direction.  I spent some time in the high desert, in the scattered lush oases where precious water was present, and high in the mountains.  Special birds here for me were Lawrence’s Goldfinch, the endangered southwest subspecies of Willow Flycatcher, and Clark’s Grebe.

Joshua trees periodically dot the landscape here.  I looked for jays in the Joshua tree “forests.”  At least until the heat of the day sent my scampering for shade or air conditioning (highest temp recorded this week on my car’s thermometer while it was driving down the road: 108 F).  Around here it pays to get up early, go out in the late afternoon, and spend the middle of the day having a quiet siesta.

Lake Isabella (the town and the lake) was my homebase area.  There’s lots of natural wonder available nearby, but not much in the way of services for visiting humans.  Few gas stations, no internet, and limited food options (I did grab a good burger at Nelda’s Diner, though).

I also saw some BIG trees.  Central Kern County is on the edge of Sequoia National Park.  While I didn’t have time to drive all the up to see the biggest sequoias, I did see some giants that rival the big trees I’ve seen in the Hoh rainforest in Olympic National Park.

I will post more later.  Tomorrow I’m traveling to the Salton Sea, where it will really be hot!  Yes, Sweety, I am wearing my sunscreen.

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