December 25th, 2010

Puerto Rico, Day 1

As I write this it’s snowing. On Christmas. In Georgia. It doesn’t seem right that just two and a half weeks ago my wife and I were in warm and sunny Puerto Rico. Thinking back on 80 degree temperatures and all those Caribbean birds feels nice right now.

I had originally planned to be in Peru during the first part of December, but those plans fell through. That left me with a lot of vacation days to be used. My wife and I had been considering taking a Caribbean cruise next spring, so we just decided to move that up a bit. It seemed to meet all the requirements: warm, birds, non-bird stuff, and warm. We decided on a seven day southern Caribbean cruise originating out of San Juan, Puerto Rico that had stops on St. Thomas, St. Croix, Antigua, Dominica, and Grenada. We would fly to Puerto Rico early so that we’d have three nights there before the cruise started.

December 8

It was with a good measure of sadness that we left our daughter in the capable hands of her grandparents while my dad drove us to the airport. It was below freezing in pre-dawn Atlanta when we arrived at the airport. Six or seven hours later, sunshine and humid air in the low 80’s greeted us as we stepped outside in San Juan. As we waited for the van to take us to the rental car, I spotted the first birds of the trip: Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows. Of course. Some Greater Antillean Grackles, although not a lifer for me, were much more welcome.

The plan was to get the car and make the relatively long drive to the southwestern corner of the island where we would stay the next three nights. Puerto Rico has 17 endemic birds, and all but one can be found in that part of the island. The lone exception, the Puerto Rican Parrot, is critically endangered and almost impossible to find in its eastern mountain haunts. I’d love to try for it, but put it off until I have more time to devote to it.

Unfortunately, most of the day was spent driving, so the only birds seen were from the car. The ubiquitous Gray Kingbird was the bird most often seen, but did see a few American Kestrels, a single group of Smooth-billed Ani, and many Cattle Egrets along the road.

After checking in to our hotel in Parguera, I had hoped there would be time to get to the Guanica State Forest before nightfall to try for the Puerto Rican Nightjar. From my research, it seemed like the best way to see this secretive bird is to walk in from the gate, which would be closed at that time. But it was dark before we could get there, so I decided to drive along PR 333, which skirts the southern edge of the dry forest. I hoped to hear a nightjar or even see one on the road. But it was a total bust. I heard nothing, and even if I had, the high traffic and lack of places to pull off the road would have kept me from doing anything about it. I’d have to try again later, after scouting out the area in the daylight.

With very few birds seen, and no lifers yet, I looked forward to a full day in Puerto Rico.

Day 2

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December 20th, 2010

Trip Preview

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I’ve been away for almost two weeks, and did not have (affordable) internet access for most of that time. So where was I? Let’s see if anyone can figure it out first.

Here are four pictures taken during the trip, none of them from the same location. Believe it or not, I think it would be possible to tell exactly where the first was taken, within a few meters. The second is more generic, but still fairly specific. I think the same could be said about the third, though I’m less sure about that. And the fourth helps reinforce the general area where the trip took place.

December 6th, 2010

Sprague’s Pipit is Not Supposed to be this Easy

“Hey, Honey…” How many conversations between a birder and non-birding significant other have begun thusly? That was Friday night, when I told my wife there was a bird I’d like to chase – a Sprague’s Pipit that was found that day at a sod farm in Marshallville, Georgia.

I don’t consider myself to be a hardcore twitcher/chaser. But: 1.) This would be a lifer; 2.) Lifers are getting harder to come by; 3.) It was “only” two and a half hours away; and 4.) It was a Sprague’s Pipit. Sprague’s are rarely found in Georgia, and are hard to see anywhere. They breed and winter in open, grassy areas where they skulk around like mice.

Sprague's Pipit hiding in the grass

As you can (barely) see, they tend to blend in. Approaching the sod farm on Saturday, the day after it was found, I was expecting a long and arduous search that would, hopefully, culminate in a view like the one in the picture above. Instead, I got this:

Sprague's Pipit in the road

It’s a poor digiscoped shot, but it gives a good idea of my introductory views of Sprague’s Pipit. I was encouraged to see a few birders at the sod farm when I arrived. As I approached one whom I knew, he said I was in luck. The bird was along the side of the dirt track we were standing on, about 75 feet further down. Sure enough, I could see the bird in the grass well enough to count it. But it then stepped out, right onto the “road”, as you see above. That was about the last thing I expected from this “elusive” bird (as based on its inclusion in the very enjoyable Rare and Elusive Birds of North America).

But it didn’t stay there long. It flew up, over us, and down into some short grass. Along the way, I got to hear its flight call that helps differentiate it from American Pipits.

Sprague's Pipit in flight

It’s coming right toward us!

We watched it for over an hour. Several times it flew, but it always stayed within about 50 feet of the road and its fans. It would walk within the relatively short grass, and every now and then stand up straight and look around. This bird looks very plain in field guides, but in person I found it to be quite attractive and, if I may say so, adorable.

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

It didn’t seem to even notice us, as this photo shows:

Sprague's Pipit with birder

I should mention that this birder did NOT approach the bird this closely. He had been sitting in the road photographing the bird, with the rest of us on the road 20 feet away from him. We were all about 20 feet from the bird, as it made its way toward us. The pipit then flew up and landed less than ten feet away from this amazed birder! He soaked it in for a little while, and then slowly stood up and walked back to the rest of us. The pipit never seemed to mind at all.

Unsurprisingly, this was an incredible experience. I always thought I’d have to go to North Dakota to get my life Sprague’s. But even there, according to the trip reports I’ve read, you’re not guaranteed a close, clear sighting like this. You may “just” see it as a tiny speck in the sky as it sings its song on the wing. But even though I don’t “need” a Sprague’s anymore, I still plan to make the trip to its breeding grounds one day. I think this sums it up perfectly:

But how inadequate a printed picture to portray this wisp of the thin air. The substance of the bird is there all right – the outline, form, and feather texture; the brown streaks and buffy wash, the pinkish legs, the black shining eye – but you need more than that to know the skylark of the Northern Plains, you need atmosphere. You need to know the plains themselves, the softness and the glow of distance and the reach of sky, the spicy air, the clarity…and then that thin music overhead.

A photograph is not enough.
William Burt, Rare and Elusive Birds of North America