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Figs, Volcanoes, Tea, Tree Kangaroos, Owls, and a Platypus

The southern Tablelands are filled with charm and wonder. There is the Curtain Fig, a 500 year-old strangler fig tree as tall as an 11 story building whose aerial roots cascade downwards through the mabi rainforest.

The Curtain Fig, near Yungaburra

There is the platypus viewing platform and trail system near the tiny town of Yungaburra, which is one of the best places in the world to observe this duck-billed, egg-laying, aquatic mammal. The platypus finds food through the use of electric fields (electrolocation), and the males have a venomous spur near their hind foot. They are also much smaller than I expected, and dang cute.

A Platypus swims in Peterson Creek, just outside Yungaburra

The landscape is dotted with crater lakes, remnants of ancient volcanoes whose powerful eruptions left large, bowl-shaped depressions which have filled with water in the intervening eons. We visited crater lakes at Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham, as well as at Mount Hypipamee National Park. Birding at Lake Barrine was especially satisfying, as we tracked down a family group of Chowchillas, one of the species we thought we had missed after not seeing them at Mount Lewis.

“The Crater” at Mount Hypipamee, a diatreme hundreds of feet deep

You can also find the Nerada Tea Planation here, the largest tea farm in all of Australia. We popped in for tea and scones, and to see their resident wild tree kangaroos.

Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos (mom and baby)

It was a whirlwind couple of days. Our home base for this part of the trip was Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodge, which I cannot recommend highly enough. The rooms are clean and modern with comfortable beds and small kitchens. Their rates are very reasonable, and include laundry service (which was critical as I was totally out of clean clothes at this point).

Set in the rainforest itself (and bordered on two sides by Crater Lakes National Park), Chambers has abundant wildlife viewing opportunities directly on the premises. Victoria’s Riflebird and Spotted Catbirds came to our deck to eat ripe banana pieces. We startled pademelons (think: mini-kangaroos) on a walk through the forest. And at night, the lodge staff smeared honey on a tree to bring in sugar gliders and other nocturnal marsupials.

Sugar Glider

A little owling provided terrific views of a magnificent Lesser Sooty Owl, common in this area.

Lesser Sooty Owl – photo by Neil Hayward

We filled our days checking out the local birding locations, including Jack Bethel Park for White-browed Robin, Hasties Swamp National Park where we saw more than 4000 Plumed Whistling Ducks, and Bromfield Swamp where we spent a memorable late afternoon watching dozens of Brolga and Sarus Cranes descend through the mist to roost at the bottom of the volcano crater for the night.

The specks in the middle ground are some of the thousands of Plumed Whistling-Ducks that were wintering at Hasties Swamp.
The view into the crater at Bromfield Swamp. The cranes usually come in to roost there near sunset.

We packed a lot into a few short days, and our time in Queensland was coming to an end. Still, there was no time to relax.

“Why is everyone always telling me to relax?!” – Neil Hayward

We would be using our last couple days in this state to drive almost 400 km due west, deep into the Queensland outback on a one-lane road. Yes, one-lane total (for both directions). We weren’t too worried until we were checking out of Chambers, and I mentioned casually that we would be driving to Georgetown that day. “You’re driving to Georgetown in THAT thing?!” the desk clerk exclaimed, pointing at our low-slung rental sedan. Yes, we were. What could possibly go wrong?

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Cairns and Cassowaries

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

Kuanda Rainforest

Kuranda Rain Forest, just outside of Cairns

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

Barron Falls

Barron Falls, just NW of Cairns

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

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

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

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

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

Cassowary Sign

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

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

Southern Cassowary

Southern Cassowary – photo by Neil Hayward

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

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

Cassowary footprint

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

Cassowary Picnic Basket

Cassowary Loots the Picnic Basket – photo by Neil Hayward

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

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

Pie Face

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

Neil looking at owls

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

Rufous Owls2

A Pair of Rufous Owls

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

 

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A Day in the Life of a Snail Kite

Hello!

I am a Snail Kite.   I live in southwest Florida, not too far from Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast.  This post is a bit about me, and what I did yesterday morning for the first hour after sunrise.

Snail Kite

Check out my awesome hooked bill.  I use it to eat my favorite food: apple snails.  I love me some snails!

This is my home: Harns Marsh.

Harns Marsh2

I live here with my bird buddies, including a whole herd of Limpkins.  Limpkins are dang noisy this time of year, filling the whole marsh with their spooky courtship yodeling.  Here are two Limpkins that I sometimes hang out with:

Limpkin

Best Limpkin

The first thing I did after I woke up was to get breakfast.  I chose an apple snail. That’s what I have for breakfast every morning.  First, I snagged one out of the marsh and took it up to my feeding wire.

Snail Kite with snail

Then I used my fancy bill to pull the juicy snail right out of its shell.  I don’t need the shell anymore, so I just dropped it into my shell collection which I keep down below my perch.

Snail Kite drops shell

Then I gobbled up the snail meat.  Yum!  Tastes kinda like chicken.

After breakfast, I saw that my lady friend was nearby, so I went over for a quick visit.

Snail Kite Copulation

We’re expecting baby kitelets later this spring.  Then I flew around the canal area a bit, showing off for this crazy bird watcher.  I got tired, so I landed in one of my favorite trees.  But I forgot that this mockingbird was building a nest nearby.  He got all up in my grill, and kept dive-bombing me until I backed off.

Snail Kite Harassed by Mocker

Stupid mockingbird.  I don’t eat mockingbird babies!  I only eat apple snails.  Mmmm, snails… maybe I should get a few more for a snack?  Then later on I’ll swing my and visit my friend, the Burrowing Owl, to see if he’s in a better mood than yesterday.

Burrowing Owl Cape Coral

Nope, I guess he’s still pissed about the old “apple snail shell down the owl burrow” trick.  Heh heh, that was a good one, though.

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Deep in the Heart of Texas

I’m on the road again, this time for my final spring blitz.  My Big Year is officially over in two months and two days, so I’m getting ready for the grand finale.  Spring migration is in full swing, and I am going to follow the birds north from the US/Mexico border all the way  to the Arctic Circle over the next couple of months.  I will also range as far east as Florida, and as far west as Gambell, AK (within sight of Siberia).  It should be crazy, and I hope also great.

Right now I’m deep in the Heart of Texas.  I’ve spent the past few days traveling through the Hill Country on the Edwards Plateau, north and west of San Antonio.

Hill Country

It is a beautiful area, full of spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife.  I travelled out to this remote area to see two endangered species that only breed within a hundred miles or so of this spot: Golden-Cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

Hill Country2

My first stop was the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, about an hour west of Kerrville.  I arrived at dawn, only to find that the main road through the refuge was closed because they were holding a spring turkey hunt – for the next three days!  My very carefully laid plans were foiled by a turkey shoot!  There are other places to see these vireos, but this was the best and closest one, and I didn’t have a lot of extra time.  I did discover that one of the side roads on the west edge of the refuge was going to be open, so I decided to give that area a go.  Forty five minutes later, I was watching a male Black-capped Vireo singing away from the top of a small cedar tree.  Success!

Driving on, I discovered another wrinkle in my plan.  The narrow two-lane highway that I intended to take to my next destination was under construction. Seriously under construction.  Like, “follow a pilot car for 15 miles along a dirt road at 10 mph” under construction.

Follow Me

I’m pretty sure my rental contract says I’m not supposed to drive off the pavement, so let’s keep this between you and me, ok?  After a slight delay, I was back on track, and arrived at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

Lost Maples2

This park is absolutely gorgeous – one of my favorite places to visit in Texas.  And it also hosts dozens of endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers, several of which obligingly popped into view during my hike along the East Trail.

Lost Maples

Lost Maples is a stop of the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail, another example of the birding/nature trails I wrote about during my last visit to Texas.

Heart of Texas

I don’t have any pictures of the warbler or the vireo because they are hard to photograph, and I didn’t want to bother or harass them (they are endangered species, after all!).  But I did manage to snap a quick picture of this cool Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but his tail is longer than his body (it’s right in front of the barbed wire).

Scissor-tail Flycatcher

My last stop in the Hill Country was at Neal’s Lodges in Concan, TX.  The owners have done a terrific job making their property bird and wildlife-friendly.  I was there in the heat of the day, so I didn’t see a ton of different species, but I did find a (previously reported) Tropical Parula, an very rare bird north of Mexico.

Neals

Tonight I went owling at Bentsen State Park.  I got a tip from the rangers about the location of an Elf Owl roost.  The owl sleeps inside an old woodpecker hole – the top hole in the middle (broken off) trunk in the picture below.

Elf Owl Tree

Elf Owls are the smallest owls in North America – a mere 5.5 inches long and an ounce and a half in weight.  Three Elf Owls combined weigh less than a single iPhone.  I watched the roost hole from about sunset to dusk (half an hour or so), and finally saw him peeking out to check things out.  He stuck his head out several times, only to disappear again into the hole.  Finally when it was almost dark, he launched himself out into the night.  What a treat.

In my Texas travels, I have found many amazing sights.  But I haven’t found Utopia yet.  I think it might be just up the road, though.

Utopia

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Flammulated Wowl

Readers of this blog know that I have been able to capture photos of a great many owls this year, and that the photos themselves are often ridiculously bad.  The owl is usually underexposed, blurry, mostly hidden inside a tree, or largely obscured by branches.

Well, get a load of this beauty.

Flammulated Owl

This is a Flammulated Owl, so named for the ‘flame-like’ markings near the eyes (ok, use your imagination a bit!).  It’s about 6 inches long, and weighs about 2 oz (half the weight of the Least Grebe Quarter-Pounder).  Normally they winter in southern Mexico and points south, and come north to breed in summer in the Ponderosa pine forests of the American Mountain West.  In 15 years of birding, I’ve only see one other one – and that was at 3am along a deserted forest road in central Washington miles and miles from nowhere.  They are one of the most difficult North American owls to see.

This one is hanging out in some bushes, about 100 yards from the beach on South Padre Island.  What’s it doing here?  I didn’t have a clue.  Until I hung out on the beach myself for a bit … and then I began to see the appeal.

Flammulated Owl

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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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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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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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