Back…to the TROPICS!

when Jeff called and asked if I wanted to come to Honduras for a new Leica product launch, I immediately checked my schedule and earmarked vacation days and said OF COURSE!! While I’ve been to South America twice in the last decade, both times for work and little free time, this will be my first time returning to the Central American tropics since around 2001…and I am STOKED!! Honduras generally, and the Lodge at Pico Bonito, specifically, have been on my short list of places I want to visit. Having crossed paths with James Adams, who runs Pico Bonito, over the last five years I know that one can expect great things around the lodge, and even more within a short drive from it. Getting to do it all with a stellar group of birders, naturalists and great writers, just sweetens the deal! So stay tuned as I blog about our adventures over the next week. In the meantime…where is the ticket agent!?

All's quiet on the United front
All’s quiet on the United front


Nocturnal Research

Inga and I were fortunate enough to join the DVOC in visiting one of Scott Weidensaul’s Northern Saw-whet Owl banding stations. The particular station is located near Wayne, Pennsylvania, along the Kittatinny Ridge. Jim Logan Jr. was the lead bander, and working with him were seven owl-savvy volunteers.

Several participants “adopted” Saw-whet Owls throughout the night (we saw five in our two hours!), and all of us learned heaps about owl ecology, migration, and biology. The project is run through the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, and you too can adopt an owl through their website here. You will receive a certificate with a photo of “your” owl, and if the owl is ever caught again, all information on the owl will be sent to you. This is a wonderful (and cheap!) way to get involved and support great research, the results of which are just now beginning to paint the picture of Saw-whet migration across North America. Here are some photos I took during our evening visit:

*if you can’t see the photos, they’re also available on my flickr site:

Winter Finching

Inga, Diane, Sandra and I headed north last week in search of the winter finches that have been invading Algonquin Provincial Park in response to the bumper cone crop this winter.

This trip was steeped in significance for me; as I’m sure it was for everyone, albeit for different personal reasons. I saw my first (12) evening grosbeaks in 1996, eating from the feeders at the house of my professor during our field ornithology course. I can remember the event as if it were yesterday, which is significant when you consider how few of the others from that semester I can actually recall. Little did I know that evening grosbeak would be a bird I would wait over 10 years to see again. But how? They were absolutely abundant and pigging out! Surely as long as you put out seed- these birds would be there. I knew so little.

Our first encounter with an Evening Grosbeak was at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail (actually, it was in the parking lot of the aforementioned trail). We had just arrived to the boardwalk, gotten all bundled up, rolled out of the minivan, and there- in the tree- calling. There it was, a female evening grosbeak. I fumbled for my binoculars, then my microphone, I needed to capture the bird in any way I could. I’m sure I looked silly, and the bird flew off. Moments later ,though, a gorgeous male flew in and serenaded us again. This time I was able to capture his sound and get a good look. What a handsome bird that is!

I could go on and on and bore you to death with the details of the trip- but instead I’d rather let you experience some of it for yourself. Here’s a little playlist of some of the sounds we heard, from the Evening Grosbeaks to the Red and White-winged Crossbills, to the more familiar song of the Pine Siskin, and finally some of the natural soundscapes and a really cool encounter with a bull Moose and family.

This trip could not have been as wonderful as it was, had it not been for the hospitality of The Ellis’s who put us up (and put up with us) on Thursday and Saturday night. They really are the coolest folks on earth. For more photos from our trip go ahead and click on the Evening Grosbeak above. You can get more of the scenery shots on Inga’s flickr site by clicking here, and Sandra has also posted some on her site here. If you have any questions regarding the trip, photos, or recordings, feel free to leave a comment on this thread or email me directly.

Good Birding!

Frosty sparrow

Frosty sparrow

Originally uploaded by woodcreeper.

I took some members of the Rutgers Ornithology class along with some members of the Rutgers Field ID course (a graduate ‘birding’ course) to Barnegat Light and the surrounding salt marshes yesterday. The trip was great, with really pleasant (for February) weather on the jetty.

4 Ipswich Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps) that posed for us on the jetty rocks definitely stand out as a highlight of the day. These are the largest (~50% heavier) and most pale of all 17 recognized subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow. They breed on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, and winter on the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to southern Georgia.

Here’s the post from Jerseybirds which gives the species seen:

At Barnegat Light:
Redhead – mixed into large scaup sp. flock across inlet on Island Beach side.
Greater Scaup – only 1 individual in group of 6 Lessers
Lesser Scaup
Common Eider – ~10 individuals, around old 8th Ave. Jetty; roughly 1:1 M:F; all adults except 1 subadult male
Harlequin Duck – >20 individuals, mostly males, many courting and calling- very cool!
Scoters – large mixed scoter flocks on Island Beach State Park side of inlet.
Surf Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck – Many individuals around both M & F; some vocalizations heard
Red-breasted Merganser – Many
Ruddy Duck – Single female
Red-throated Loon – few
Common Loon – many
Horned Grebe – several close to jetty providing awesome looks
Northern Gannet – two way out…west winds likely keeping them out
Great Cormorant – 1 adult + several subadults; on the markers in the inlet near the end of the jetty, including one with bright white hip patches visible.
Falcon sp. (most likely Peregrine, perched on the water tower and scoped from the jetty…looked light, but heat distortion and distance are likely the cause. Attempts to relocate afterward were unsuccessful)
American Oystercatcher
Ruddy Turnstone
Purple Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich) – 4 individuals at the end of the paved part of jetty provided great looks.
Northern Cardinal

Dock Rd & Ceder Run Dock Rd.
Many of the waterfowl were seen from the end of Dock Rd, scoping the open water area to the NW.
Mute Swan
American Black Duck
Hooded Merganser
Pied-billed Grebe
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk – 1 Dark & 1 Light morph; both on Cedar Run Dock Rd.
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Flicker
Carolina Chickadee
Cedar Waxwing

Back from Mexico

Wow! Veracruz was amazing.

Our lab (Ben, Blake and myself + Holly Vuong from the Morin lab in our department) presented our research down at the North American Ornithologists’ Conference, in Veracruz, Mexico last week. It was no accident that the organizers scheduled the conference during the peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration, and although we never witnessed the 500,000-bird days-of-lore, we did have a spectacular 190,000+ raptor day last Thursday that rocked our socks. Veracruz not only provides world renowned hawkwatching, but also some fantastic birding in all sorts of habitats from lowland marshes to cloud forest. We spent several days prior to the conference taking in the local sights such as Las Barrancas grasslands where we saw Aplomado Falcon
Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis)
and Double-striped Thick-knee
Double-striped Thick-knee (Burhinus bistriatus) + Donkeys
to name my favorites.

We visited the hawkwatch at Cardel once a day for the first few days in hopes of a good flight, but were only treated with teaser kettles (or vortexes, if you’re in Mexico) in the distance although we did manage a really cool kettle of over 60 Anhingas on one of the slow days.

On Thursday though we witnessed what everyone talks about when referring to migration in Veracruz: HUGE kettles of hawks, mostly Broad-winged and some Turkey Vultures, but with a smattering of Swainson’s hawks and the occasional Gray Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Mississippi or Swallow-tailed Kite.
Hawk flight from the Cardel hawkwatch
There were also two Common Black Hawks riding the thermals between the hawkwatch and the mountains providing great views to all on the rooftop. The sheer magnificence of the kettles forming and swirling up into the atmosphere, where the birds then peel off into a ribbon (or river!) of raptors that extends over the hawkwatch and as far beyond as the eye can see, is almost impossible to describe in words. It begins with just a slight shimmering on the horizon, over the mountains. Like the air is speckled with tinsel. These birds, broad-winged hawks, are then joined by darker objects more discernable through binoculars as Turkey Vultures. As the swarm of birds gains altitude in the thermal, more birds join from below, and the column grows into a swirling writhing vortex. At some high altitude the effect of the thermal dissipates, and birds orient themselves in the desired direction and begin to peel off in a glide. From the hawkwatch we watched several ‘streams’ originating from several different thermal columns, all streaking past our post and behind us into the southern horizon. Each time one thermal seemed to become exhausted, another would start up and the process would repeat itself.

Prior to this visit I had heard folks talking about the hawkwatch. Mostly it was, “yeah, there are a lot of birds, but they’re counting on a rooftop in the middle of the city…not necessarily the scenic view I’d want at a hawkwatch”. Now after experiencing it, I can officially put down my foot and say that while it’s no Raccoon Ridge, it’s still definitely a great place to watch raptor migration. Take in this image for a moment: I’m on the rooftop of the highest building in the city, looking out on a forest green range of mountains to the north, and beyond the limits of the city to either side are vast grasslands and agricultural fields, while the ocean is visible in the distant east. Kiskadees, Tropical Kingbirds, Yellow-winged Tanager, Great-tailed Grackles and Melodius Blackbirds chatter below in the trees. My right hand is resting on my scope while I scan the horizon for new forming kettles. My left hand is wrapped around an ice cold Negra Modelo that I just purchased from the hawkwatch concession. Oh, a kettle of 20,000 birds just popped up in the distance….hawk watching doesn’t get much better than this. 🙂

For more information on the River of Raptors hawkwatch, click here for the Pronatura Veracruz website