Tag Archives: rare bird

Arrival at the Indian Ocean: Birding St. Lucia and iSimangaliso

On the afternoon of Day 12 of our South African birding adventure, we drove into St. Lucia. This is not the island nation of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean. This is St. Lucia, a tiny tourist town (population 1100) in KwaZulu-Natal on the shores of the Indian Ocean in eastern South Africa. I fell in love with it at once. The main street had a welcoming and low-key vacation vibe. A warm ocean breeze stirred the palm trees outside the coffee shop, where we drank coffee and ate pastries. There was both WiFi and cell service, and Neil and I took the opportunity to send reassuring texts to our families after a number of days of radio silence. And after five or six meals in a row of granola bars, dried fruit, and sandwiches (and wondering if I should buy some sketchy looking warthog chops to cook with my bare hands over the braai), we were greeted by a number of real restaurants. We had reserved a room at St. Lucia Wilds for two nights, which was a perfectly nice place to stay with a quiet setting, clean and comfortable accommodations, friendly hosts, and a very reasonable rate.

Over the course of the next two days, we explored the lush coastal forests and estuaries around St. Lucia. One of our first stops was the beach just east of town. We marveled at the roaring surf of the Indian Ocean, and watched several humpback whales cruise just offshore.

There were a healthy number of new birds to add to our list as well, including some stately Pink-backed Pelicans, Cape Gannet, Kittlitz’s Plover, and Yellow-billed Stork.

Pink-backed Pelicans – photo by Neil Hayward

We visited the nearby Igwalawala nature trail several times, and enjoyed seeing the multitude of forest birds that were drawn to the fruiting figs, including Trumpeter Hornbill and both Purple-crested and Livingstone’s Turaco.

Trumpeter Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

On Day 13, we spent most of the day at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This spectacular reserve protects a swath of lowland forest and coastline stretching north from St. Lucia all the way to the border with Mozambique. We drove the main road that snakes between Lake St. Lucia on the west and the ocean to the east all of the way up to Cape Vidal. In the misty forest at the Cape we saw several Woodward’s Batis, a bird that is rarely found in South Africa outside
iSimangaliso Park. Along the Grassland Loop road, a highlight was Collared Pratincole.

Neil has all of his optics at the ready
Woodward’s Batis – photo by Neil Hayward
Collared Pratincole – photo by Neil Hayward

Coming back in the late afternoon, I was gazing sleepily out the window when a couple of dark shapes in the distance caught my attention. “Stop!” I shouted to Neil, and our SUV fish-tailed slightly on the muddy road as Neil executed his patented full-stop emergency birding maneuver. It wasn’t birds that had caught my attention, but a trio of White Rhinoceroses including a young calf ambling through a wet meadow. Although we had seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, water buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, vervet monkeys, jackels, hyenas, meerkats, and whales, we had totally dipped on rhinos. Problems with poachers had led rangers and park officials throughout the country to be tight-lipped about rhino sightings, and in some cases rhinos were even relocated to more remote, more protected areas. But at last, here at iSimangaliso we found them. After watching the rhino family for half an hour or so at a respectable distance, we continued our drive back to St. Lucia.

White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward
White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward

The St. Lucia area provided a very satisfying conclusion to our trip. I was a little worried that everything after Kruger would be anti-climactic, but the last few days were a wonderful way to wrap things up. We submitted eBird checklists from False Bay, St. Lucia Estuary, and iSimangaliso Park.

Now it was time for us to drive back to Johannesburg. I needed to catch a flight back to Seattle, and Neil was meeting his family for a little vacation time in Cape Town. We stopped by Mtunzini to look for Palm-nut Vultures, and the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe. The aerial boardwalk through the trees was quite impressive, but our bird list at Dlinza was pretty meager.

All told, I saw 333 species in 14 days traversing northeast South Africa. Neil picked up some bonus species around Cape Town, and ended his trip close to 400. It was an absolutely amazing experience that exceeded my expectations in every way.

So what’s next? That whole story will have to wait for future posts this summer. But this arrived in the mail at my house last month:

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Alaska Wrap-up

My Big Year is over.  What began at Falls Creek State Natural Area in Minnesota on June 13, 2012 ended at my house in Washington state on June 12, 2013.  My official tally is 647 species of birds – a few short of my goal of 650 (I was hoping to add about five species on my cancelled trip to Gambell).  But  this was the only possible measure by which my year fell short.  In all other ways, it exceeded my hopes and expectations.  I will be writing more about my thoughts and observations about the year in general later on this summer, but for now here is my Alaska wrap-up report.

Miles by car: 1802

Miles by bus (Denali): 95

Miles by boat (multiple trips): 30

Miles by foot: 25

Number of new Big Year birds seen: 23

Total species seen: 123

Number of moose I had to swerve to avoid on a four-lane road 5 minutes from the Anchorage airport: 1

Number of glaciers seen: 7

Number of new arch-nemeses/birding friends: 1

Hans and Neil

Coolest mammal seen: Lynx

Reason I did not get a picture of the coolest mammal: I was too busy sitting there with my mouth open, thinking “That is the most ENORMOUS bobcat I’ve ever seen!”

Coolest birds: Tie between Willow Ptarmigan:

Willow Ptarmigan

Bluethroat (photos by Neil Hayward):

Bluethroat by Neil Hayward

Bluethroat by Neil Hayward

And Long-tailed Jaeger (photo by Neil Hayward):

Long-tailed Jaeger by Neil Hayward

Rarest bird: White Wagtail (photo by Neil Hayward)

White Wagtail by Neil Hayward

Bird that I have a new appreciation for: Red-throated Loon (photo by Neil Hayward)

Red-throated Loon by Neil Hayward

In Washington we mostly see them while they are in their winter basic plumage, so it was a treat to get to see them in all of their high breeding splendor.

Coolest Experience: Visiting the many seabird breeding colonies around Seward and Homer by boat, getting very close to thousands of nesting puffins, murres, and kittiwakes.  Here is a quick video I took of Gull Island near Homer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8sUJIJgwy4.

Quirkiest Town: Nome

Abandoned Railway

Subway Movie Theater

Velvet in pickup by Neil Hayward

There aren’t many towns in the U.S. with abandoned railway cars sinking into the tundra, a combo Subway/movie theater, and a caribou named Velvet who rides around in the back of a pickup.

On the whole, Alaska was an amazing experience.  I will definitely be back!

Coming soon, a post that attempts to answer the question many people have asked me recently: ‘After visiting all of those great schools and interesting teachers throughout the U.S., what did you learn about the state of education/effective schools/good teaching?’

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Roaming Nome

The last three days have passed in a blur.  With 24 hours of light (including 21 hours when the sun is actually above the horizon), there is a surreal sense of timelessness.  One day blends seamlessly into the next.  Fog rolls in, fog rolls out.  Rain changes to sleet, and sleet into brief bursts of sunshine.  The pack ice on the Bering Sea blows in, and then blows out.

Bering Sea Pack Ice

The ice patches that still dot the landscape melt and re-freeze, making interesting patterns and formations.

Ice columns

Many times I’d forget whether it was time for breakfast, dinner, an outing, or bed.  I’d get back in the truck after a short hike across the tundra to find (to my amazement) that it was nearly 10pm.  One day I brushed my teeth four times, the next I forgot completely.  I couldn’t remember if an event happened earlier that day, or the previous day, or the day before that.  But the one thing I know is that Neil and I typically spent a good 14 hours in the field, sometimes longer, and we saw some amazing things.

Our trusty steed was a 2002 pickup with 149,000 miles on it.  It came with one half-flat tire, and one-quarter tank of gas.  But as soon as we pumped up the left front tire a bit and put about $100 worth of gas in it, it was good to go!

gasoline in Nome

On our first full day, we headed out Kougarok Road.  Highlights included Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. A female Willow Ptarmigan even posed in the road for us:

Female Willow Ptarmigan

We also saw Muskox; some were distant adults:

Muskox

And one adorable baby muskox briefly ran along side the truck:

Baby Musk Ox

In the afternoon we drove back along Council Road, where Neil’s sharp eyes picked out a group of four rare Steller’s Eiders floating along on a small piece of sea ice.

Steller's Eiders

They were too far away for my wimpy camera, but we got great looks through the telescopes.

The next day we explored the third road out of Nome, Teller Road.  A moose greeted us on the edge of town.

Nome Moose

Our jaunt down Teller was another great success.  We found singing Bluethroats, and Neil got some amazing photos of this Old World thrush (or is it now considered a flycatcher?) that barely ranges into Alaska.  He promised to send me some of his pictures.  Neil also found a White Wagtail, a rare bird even for the Nome area.  This Asian vagrant fluttered about the edges of the Sinuk River near a bridge, and I snapped some blurry but identifiable photos for posterity:

White Wagtail Nome June 7 2013

For our final full day in the Nome area, Neil and I again teamed up with Abe to look for the mythical Bristle-thighed Curlew.  There is exactly one accessible location in North America where this shorebird breeds, and I use the word “accessible” loosely.  First you have to fly to Nome, via Anchorage (and maybe some other places).  Then you have to secure a vehicle and drive 72 miles north on the Kougarok dirt road.  Then you have to climb across the wet tundra up a mountain ridge to the Curlew’s nesting grounds, a hike that has been described as “walking on bowling balls” due to the nature of the low but very thick plant life there.  Then you have to identify the Curlew, which looks extremely similar to the Whimbrel, another shorebird that nests in the same area.

Neil, Abe, and I left Nome very early, stopping only to search (successfully!) for Arctic Warbler about 20 miles up the road.  We arrived at milepost 72 by 9am, and began the relatively short but squishy hike up the ridge.  I have to hand it to these curlews – they picked a remote but spectacular place to raise their young:

BT Curlew Nesting Area

After getting to the top, the first large shorebird we spotted was a Whimbrel.  But a short time later, another bird came flying in, giving the Bristle-thighed Curlew’s characteristic call, and showing its distinctive unstreaked, buffy rump.  This is one of the hardest birds in North America to actually see, and we were all pretty happy about finding it.

Abe and Neil

We hung around for a while, watching an American Golden-Plover and some displaying Long-tailed Jaegers, and then headed back to the truck for the long drive back to Nome.  After vowing to “go to bed early for a change,” Neil and I were again out birding past 10pm before I finally convinced him to go back to Nome for dinner.  I was tucked in no later than about 1am.

This morning I was scheduled to fly to Gambell, a tiny Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island.  Unfortunately it is very foggy at the Nome airport today, and I’ve spent the last four hours in the waiting area at Bering Air to see if our flight will go out.  The only good part about this is that I’ve finally been able to catch up on my blog a bit.  Currently we’re still on “weather hold” and the fog does not appear to be lifting.  If the flight is canceled, I’ll try to find a place to stay in Nome tonight (the place I’ve been staying is full up!) and maybe try to get on a flight tomorrow.  Travelers to Alaska sometimes have to be flexible and patient.  But it’s worth putting up with the weather and the delays to be able to visit a special place like this.

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There’s No Place Like Nome

Nome Scenery

After a week driving north (to Denali) and south (to the Kenai) from Anchorage, I hopped a flight to Nome in western Alaska.  Nome is a small outpost on the Bering Sea.  It is surrounded by tundra, mountains, ice, and some very cool birds that are hard to see elsewhere in North America.  There are three dirt roads leading out of town (some 75 miles each), so the plan was to rent a pickup truck and drive into the wilderness to see what I could find.

I met Neil Hayward from the Boston area a few months ago thanks to the miracle of the internet and the online birding community.  Neil is doing a North American Big Year in 2013, and what a year it has been so far.  He has been doing some amazing trips and seeing some great stuff, and he agreed to meet me in Nome for four days of intense birding.

Neil at Bluethroat

I was so glad to have Neil along for this leg of my trip.  He is an excellent birder, and a great traveling companion.  I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area with him.

We both arrived in Nome on the afternoon of June 5th, but our rental pickup wasn’t available until the morning of the 6th.  Fortunately we bumped into Abe Borker and his father Joe, who very graciously invited us to ride along with them in their truck for an afternoon of birding the Council Road and Safety Lagoon.  We didn’t need to be asked twice, and soon the four of us were off.

Nome Council Rd

We had a fantastic afternoon.  Some highlights for the day were two Arctic Loons, Red Phalaropes, an Emperor Goose, and this Gyrfalcon (and three fuzzy babies) nesting under a bridge:

Gyrfalcon nest

I got a few pictures of some birds that were close to the road, including Bar-tailed Godwits (two in their alternate breeding plumage and one still in basic winter plumage):

Bar-tailed Godwits

Numerous Red-necked Phalaropes:

Red-necked Phalaropes

And a second-summer Slaty-backed Gull (to the right of the white immature Glaucous Gull):

2nd Summer Slatybacked Gull

We also saw a fox, and the remains of a Tundra Swan that presumably had been the fox’s breakfast this morning.

Tundra swan wing

Further along the road, there were reminders of Nome’s history as a gold rush town.  Gold was discovered in this area in 1897, and a few years later the area was inundated with prospectors.  It was the largest town in the Alaska Territory by the turn of the Century a few years later.  Reminders of this era remain in many places today, like this old abandoned gold dredging machine.

Abandoned Gold Dredge

A railroad line was even planned and built in the early 1900s from Nome to Council City.  Although it was never completed all the way to Council City, the line ran for several years until about 1907.  Difficulties with construction, operation, and financing stalled the project, and in 1913 the line was wiped out by a huge storm.  The cars and engines still sit in the tundra where they were wrecked, nearly 100 years ago.

Abandoned Railway

Abe, Joe, Neil, and I explored the Council Road area late into the evening.  With sunset around 1:30 am, there was seemingly no reason to end our trip.  We finally rolled back into Nome about 10:30 pm, and were fortunate to find one local establishment still open: the Bering Sea Bar and Restaurant.  After a meal, I headed to bed.  Sunrise would come early (4:28 am), and I had three more days of birding ahead of me.

I often end my posts with a pretty shot of the sunset, but this time you’ll just have to use your imagination.

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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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