Birding the Keys

Female Magnificent Frigatebird

As you may have noticed in my previous post we were in the Florida Keys, not to view devastation, though there was plenty of that, but to look for birds. We weren’t even sure the trip was going to “fly”, so to speak, but Road Scholar assured us we would be fine so off we went. Ended up there were five of us plus our guide and our driver/coordinator. A lot of people were scared off. So we had almost individualized birding guidance.

The hurricane changed some habitats, plus the day before we arrived they had 9 inches of rain. So areas where shorebirds were usually found (shallow waters) had no birds. The water was just too deep. Some shorelines had been changed by the winds which moved sand pretty far inland. At one beach there were guys with little bulldozers literally pushing the sand back on to the shore. So even though our guide had scoped out the areas we planned to visit, things had changed, birds had moved on and we just had to work a little harder.

Pushing the beach back

But even with these challenges we added 41 birds to our yearly list, seven of those were life birds.

Just a refresher here. We keep two lists. One is a Yearly List which is all of the bird species we see in the year. So the first robin, the first bluejay, the first chickadee of the year and so on. So far I have 220 for 2017. Our second list is the Life List. This is the total species we have seen in our lifetime. So not a lot get added every year unless we travel to different habitats. Our Life Birds from this trip included the Brown Booby and the Masked Booby (both seen from our boat on the way to the Dry Tortugas), the White-crowned Pigeon and the Worm-eating Warbler (in the Everglades), the Common Ground Dove, the Short-tailed Hawk, and the Magnificent Frigatebird. The Frigatebird is the only one I was able to photograph and she is at the top of this post. You probably are more familiar with the male in his breeding plumage. He is all black and he puffs up a bright red pouch under his bill.

Here are my photos I was able to get of some of the birds we added to our 2017 list.

Cattle Egret, Brown Pelican, White Ibis

Ruddy Turnstone, Palm Warbler (in flight), Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Parula Warbler

Royal Terns (orange bill) and Black-bellied Plovers (black belly only in breeding)

An uncle asked me recently ,”Why do you travel so far to see birds?” The only answer I could think of was, “That’s where they are. And besides, there aren’t any Frigatebirds in Wisconsin.” Bottomline, we don’t ski, or play hockey or run marathons. This is our sport, this is our fun.

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After Irma

September 10, 2017 : At 9am EST Hurricane Irma made landfall on the Florida Keys with Category 4 winds. By the afternoon a storm surge of 10 foot waves hit the same area. Key West, Sugarloaf Key, Summerland Key, Ramrod Key, Little Torch Key, Big Pine Key and Marathon were flooded by the storm surge, and tornadoes were reported at Sugarloaf Key.

October 30, 2017 : Curt and I arrive in Florida to participate in a Road Scholar birdwatching trip on Key Largo and Key West. We had been assured that our accommodations were fine (we were moved from Marathon Key to Key Largo) and that the birds were back.

True, many of the birds were back but things had changed. I will talk about birds in another post, right now I just want you to see what it looks like seven weeks after a hurricane. And this is just what we could see from the main roads. No one ever hears very much about aftermath. It just seems like they got things cleaned up and life goes on and the golfing in Mar a Lago is fine, but it will be years before everyone is back to “normal.” I have read that people who had their homes destroyed when Hurricane Sandy went up the East Coast five years ago are still waiting for their insurance money from FEMA.  (side note: regular hurricane insurance in Florida costs $12,000 a year, most can’t afford it)

So this is what we were told by residents of the Keys and this is a little of what we saw. Basically right now they are still trying to remove all of the debris. Residents are told to drag anything and everything out to the curb or the road edge. Natural stuff, like trees and bushes, should be in a separate pile from the drywall, appliances, carpeting, furniture, boats, clothing, mattresses, well…basically everything else. Some of these piles look like this. ( Forgive my photography. All were shot from the car as we were not allowed out and about in these areas.)Bulldozers come through and fill up huge semi trucks and they cart off the load to a site where it becomes a bigger pile.

Here is a typical mulch pile from destroyed vegetation. You can sort of tell the height from the pickup truck parked in front.

Mulch pile

Now this was just on the main roads. In our search for birds we went down a few ordinary residential streets. Every house has a pile outside their home. Piles of trees and vegetation are everywhere and we were told that it will be picked up last. Biggest problem, finding trucks and haulers because Houston is also cleaning up and a ton of truckers went there first. And for every pile waiting on the road there are many, many areas that haven’t been touched. From our car we saw lots of junk intermingled with downed trees or just stuff, someone’s stuff. The storm also brought in sand and we saw piles waiting to be ….. I’m not sure, put back into the ocean?

Downed trees

Sand piles

A piece of the road, notice the white stripe? Just peeled free, swept up, and dropped.

But all is not gloom and doom. Yes, there is a mess and it will be a lot of work for a long time. We saw a lot of roofers and a lot of tarps on roofs. We heard stories from people who have to rebuild from scratch but we also saw homes and businesses that were spared or have had a chance to clean up. We had a good time, good accommodations and good food.

Key West

And the birds were back.

White Ibis

If only…

If only we had seen a pigeon. (we checked every silo and barn in seven counties) +1
If only the peregrine falcon flew into her nest. (They are nesting on the local power plant. One can see them almost every day but we stopped three times this weekend and they were a no-show) +1
If only we had better hearing. ( Birders with good ears and song identification skills have a distinct advantage.) +10
If only we could function on less than 6 hours of sleep. ( Getting into the field at 4:30am is just impossible for us). +10

Yes, If only we were 30 years younger and didn’t have to stop to pee a lot or get something to eat we might have seen over 100 birds. But instead, this past weekend, after 14,000 steps/6 miles walking, 360 miles driving, at 9 locations in 7 counties we saw 83 bird species for the Big Bay Birdathon. Sponsored by our local Audubon chapter, we have competed in 4 of the 6 birdathons and they have all been a challenge in one way or another. Last year the arthritis and bone spurs in my right knee hobbled our team which included my son. Too bad, since Nathan is a great asset with young eyes and ears. This year I had a new knee which worked great, so the walking and exercise was a plus. But there were just some things we couldn’t overcome or plan for. However that’s the nature of birding.

If only they would just stay put or be more predictable.

The Big Bay Birdathon is supposed to be a fun, friendly competition (it is) but also a fundraiser because we are asked to find pledges per bird or people who just pay a flat amount. We regularly come in last in bird numbers, (only missed not being last this year by one bird), however we usually come in first for pledge money. This year we repeated in the most pledge dollars netting over $300 for NE Wisconsin Audubon chapter.

After all is said and done, all the teams get together to share our numbers, get prizes ( bird feeders/bags of seed), eat pizza, drink beer and share our highlights:

•We came upon at least 10 or more Bobolinks zooming around Killsnake NWR.

•One team witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands of tree swallow and barn swallows coming into roost at the end of the day at Mack WR.

•Another team tried calling down a Barred Owl and was really surprised when it worked and he/she flew past.

• I also managed to get a shot of a Black-crowned Night Heron at Horicon Marsh. cool.

Black-crowned Night Heron

It’s a lot of fun…if only…..

 

 

While looking for Swans We found a New Restaurant

Right now we are involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is a 4 day worldwide birdwatching deal that anyone can participate in. No matter if you don’t know the names of all the birds, just identify and count the ones you know. And yes, you know more than you think. I know you can identify cardinals, sparrows, goldfinches, seagulls, geese…and if you happen to know more so you can say Northern cardinal, House sparrow, Tree sparrow, Lesser goldfinch, Herring gull, Canada geese, well then, all the better. It’s fun, lasts 4 days (Feb 17 -20) and you can do all four days and watch on and off all day or just one day for 15 minutes and then quit. Today is the last day for this year.

We get a bit more into it, so yesterday since it was 50 degrees on February 19th in NE Wisconsin instead of huddling in our house viewing birds from our windows we decided to take a field trip up to Door County, specifically Baileys Harbor where friends of ours reported seeing Tundra Swans.

BUT, this post is not about birds it is about lunch. Once we got to the town in question, about 60 miles north of here, and, finding no swans anywhere, we looked for a lunch place. In the winter not many places are open up there, especially on a Sunday but we did see a restaurant called Chives which had an OPEN sign in the window. We had heard of this restaurant but thought it was on the west side of the bay of Green Bay. And yes it is, same owner. Friends had given it good reviews. So, with not many other options in sight we went in.

Chives, Baileys Harbor, WI

Chives, Baileys Harbor, WI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was nice looking inside. First room had seating and a bar but we were taken to a second room that had a very nice view of the Lake Michigan. Later we discovered a small room with couches, casual seating and small tables and a dining area that looked like a library.

Looks like a great place for dinner.

Looks like a great place for dinner.

We had a nice corner seat by the window.

We had a nice corner seat by the window.

The waiter brought the menu that was a combination brunch/lunch. It was sweet and savory/ breakfasty and lunchy.

menuLots of good choices. The menu reminded us of a favorite restaurant we frequent in DePere, WI called The Creamery. When he found out it was a charcuterie, Curt ordered the first item called House-made Grilled Sausage. It was composed of a ramp & morel sausage, three aged cheddars: Dunbarton Blue, Hooks 7 year & Blue Mont. A schmear of brown mustard, a mustard seed caviar and two slices of crusty bread. He paired that with a side salad. He said if he ordered it again he would asked for two sausages because it was excellent.charcuterieI decided on The Bistro which was a grilled cheese sandwich ( Muenster and White cheddar on a rustic bread), soup of the day (white bean and smoked ham) and a salad. The salads were already dressed with an interesting vinaigrette. The soup was wonderful and so hearty I really didn’t need the sandwich but it was great cheese combination and I ate it all.

Sorry, didn't remember to take photos until after I had started in

Sorry, didn’t remember to take photos until after I had started in

Service was very good. We didn’t have to wait long at all for our food. Wait staff was attentive but not overly so. It just was a pleasant lunch all around. If you go, hours are limited because it just isn’t super busy in Door County in the winter. Matter of fact, this is the first winter this restaurant has decided to stay open but it is only Th – Sat: 4pm to close ( dinner service) and Sat/Sun: 9 – 2 (lunch/brunch). Well worth the trip. However if you are looking for swans I hope you have better luck than we did. We did see a lot of Herring gulls, Common crows and Red-tailed hawks. Better luck next time.

Birds or Beans: Follow-up

crows

Crows. They all took to the air as I pointed my camera their way.

Well New Year’s Day was just beautiful. Sunny, mid-thirties but a bit windy. Still we bundled up since we were headed to the Green Bay and Lake Michigan shore. Always cooler by the water. We always start our birding at home (New Franken on the map) since we have a ton of feeders and we also do the Cornell Feederwatch count. So before we even left for the road we had 11 species.

We got out of the house at 9:15am and our First Stop was the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. There we picked up three more birds. You can always count on Mallards, Canad geese and Black ducks there. Next Stop, the Mouth of the Fox River. A Peregrine Falcon was a nice surprise. He was sitting up near a box where a pair will nest later in the year. Stop Three, Starbucks for coffee.

In the neighborhood

In the neighborhood

After we had our coffee we tried to find a Snowy Owl in an area where we had seen them earlier but no luck today so we hit the highway. The plan was to drive down to Sheboygan and then slowly make our way back north along the Lakeshore. Before getting to the lake we got a few hawks and some wild turkeys along the highway and then stopped for a fast lunch.

MickeyD is quick and they are running a great promotion: Buy one sandwich and get second for price of yesterday's temperature, 40 cents.

MickeyD is quick and they are running a great promotion: Buy one sandwich and get second for price of yesterday’s temperature, 40 degrees = 40 cents.

birds2

Whoops! Almost forgot we also got a whole group of Wild Turkeys while we headed down the highway to Sheboygan. Forgot to list them on the map.

In Sheboygan while we were looking for gulls, the Polar Bear Club was getting ready to dive into very cold Lake Michigan. We did not stick around for the shivering. Ducks and gulls were abundant. Best sighting was a Glaucous Gull. Surprising how tiring birding from the road can be. It’s a lot of driving and a lot of scanning rafts of birds in some cases. We tried to stop and just stretch our legs once in awhile but you really have to keep going if you want to cover a lot of territory.

These are the masses of gulls one has to scan at times. We were lucky to get a Black-backed gull and a Glaucous today. This bunch are mostly Herring Gulls.

These are the masses of gulls one has to scan at times. We were lucky to get a Black-backed gull and a Glaucous today. This bunch are mostly Herring Gulls.

We got home by 4:00 pm and ended up with 33 birds for the day. A great start on our year list. But the best part was we knew dinner was done and waiting for us at the end of the trip. Here is my bowl of Red Beans and Rice ready to eat.beans

Sturdy and Fuzzy go Birding

sf7Recently we were together with friends who had just returned from a trip to Florida. While there they had seen some unusual birds. Well unusual for Wisconsinites but quite normal for Floridians. One they already had identified as an American Oystercatcher. A cool bird to see. After some description and explanation we determined that the other bird had been an Avocet. Another fine bird to see. Our friends said while they were there a group of birders had also gathered to view the birds. They knew they were birders because the men all had facial hair and outdoor vests or L.L. Bean jackets and the women, dressed similarly, were sturdy.

Guys with facial hair? Sure. Sturdy women? Hmm, should I take offense? I took some pictures of the people watching the birds on some of our trips. You be the judge.

sf4SF3SF8sf5SFsf6I don’t know. Do you see any hairy guys or sturdy women? Well maybe. Below is a picture of us and our friends taken about five years ago. Can you tell which are the birders? I guess Curt is kind of fuzzy and I am much more sturdy than Barbara. Or maybe the binoculars gave us away?

heuerslukens

 

 

I just Point and Shoot

Well we just got back from another birding trip. This past week we spent about four days hiking or walking or standing in Northwest Ohio at either the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Metzger Marsh, the Pearson Metropark, Meadowbrook Marsh, the Maumee Bay Wildlife Area and of course the biggie, The Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. We had been to Magee before, about a half day at the end of our Road Scholar Birding Trip to Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island, Ohio about three years ago, so we knew what to expect. Lots of birds and LOTS of birders. The Magee Marsh is managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and it features 5,000 feet of boardwalk on 2,200 acres of wetland.The ODNR and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (a private nonprofit) host the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival here every year during the first 2 weeks of May. Why here? Because this is in one of the prime Spring migratory routes for warblers and many other birds. And it is on the shore of Lake Erie so the birds sort of “bunch up” there as they feed and get stoked up for the flight across the lake to their Canada breeding grounds. Thousands of birders show up to view the birds and the boardwalk gets packed at times. There are beginning birders, expert birders, mediocre birders, birder groupies, and then there are the photographers. Not just the amateurs like me with my Powershot SX40 HS Canon but the big boys and girls with the monster cameras and the 300, 400…600, 1000 mm lens. (I think some of them are amateurs too, they just have more money). At times you can find yourself surrounded by thousands and sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars of camera equipment. But what brings everyone down to the same level are the birds.

You can have the biggest lens with the biggest flash.shootYou can have a lens as big as your head.headshotYou can point and point and…camerasand wait and wait and wait, sometimes all day.

camera2But if the bird won’t turn around, this is all you get for your time, your patience and your money. It really doesn’t matter how big your lens is.

Great Horned owlet

Great Horned owlet

Now of course I’m having some fun here. What you see is what nature photographers do, they wait, sometimes for a very long time to get the perfect shot. And they do this in all kinds of weather. That’s where those fabulous shots come from in National Geographic and other such publications. For me, just seeing the bird with my binoculars is enough. And if I am lucky enough to come back the next day and the bird has decided to stay put and turn around, I’ll cross my fingers and just point and shoot.owl2

Spring?

It’s April. It snowed yesterday. My daffodils that are trying to bud have quickly tucked their heads in. Today the sky was gray and it rained  because luckily the temperature got up to 34, barely. Tonight it is expected to go down to 23. Can this be Spring?

Well the goldfinch guys think it is. They are quickly changing into their Spring plumage in order to woo the ladies. I will trust them and hope for the best.finches

It must be working, that Lady Cardinal looks interested.

Quite Apropos

Just a day after posting about the chimney swifts I was checking for the dates of the Birds in Art exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. As the page popped up I was surprised to see this picture listed in the exhibit information.

Andrew Wyeth, 'Swifts', 1991, watercolor on paper, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum

Andrew Wyeth, ‘Swifts’, 1991, watercolor on paper

It was as if Andrew Wyeth had been looking through the same lens I was looking through the other night. This piece will be part of an upcoming exhibit, Audubon to Wyeth: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures. To make it even more special, it is owned by this little gem of a museum, right here in central Wisconsin. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.

Swift Watching

ALineOfSwifts

Picture credit: Jonestown, Texas Swiftfest

Right now a lot of birds are on the move since we are just beginning the fall migration. Chimney Swifts are no exception and they display a behavior which is fun to watch. Swifts look like little torpedos with fluttery wings, thus the nickname ‘flying cigars.’ Their wings move quite fast and the birds emit a high-pitched chattering while flying over your head. You probably have seen them and not known it because they tend to hang out with swallows. During migration, thousands of swifts roost together in chimneys, funneling into them at dusk.

To get a sense of how many are migrating, Audubon asks bird clubs and bird groups to conduct a count in their area. There is worry that the Swift population is diminishing because more chimneys are being capped or just removed because they are no longer in use. Our count was on August 8th and the chimney we watched became the overnight roost for 86 swifts. Other watchers got less than ten or none but a few got anywhere from 200-300.

This week one of our local birders reported seeing 2000 chimney swifts going into a large local chimney at the St. Norbert’s Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin. I had a dinner engagement on the evening following this report so I decided to drive over after dinner to see if the swifts were still around. They were. There was another birder there and between the two of us we counted at least 2500 chimney swifts.

The next night I said to Curt, “Let’s go find some swifts.” And this time I took the camera.

When we got to The Abbey the sky was full of birds. (note: click on the picture to get a larger view)

Swifts in the Sky

Swifts in the Sky (How many do you think are in this frame? The answer is at the end of this post)

They swirled in a clockwise direction. Around and around. The sun set at 7:33pm but they still kept flying. Then about 7:45pm they started dropping into the chimney.

They dropped into the chimney.

They dropped into the chimney.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped!

and dropped!

These pictures were taken in just the first minute. The birds continued to go into the chimney and in another minute or two the sky was empty. I think we once again had 2000 – 3000 birds. They will roost there overnight clinging to the vertical masonry. The next day will be spent foraging. They may roost again in this chimney or move on, eventually ending up in South America for the winter. It was a wonderful and amazing sight.

Swifts a bit closer up.

Swifts a bit closer up.

Answer.  We carefully counted 175 birds in just this small section of the sky