November 10th, 2010

GOS Fall Meeting: Raccoon Key

Way back in October, the Georgia Ornithological Society (GOS) held its annual fall meeting on the Georgia coast. (Yes, I’m a bit behind!) Jon Dunn gave the keynote address on the topic of gull identification. And, of course, there were field trips. This year, I took the opportunity to go on trips to some places I had never been to before. The first such trip was to Raccoon Key.

The reason I had never birded there was simple – I don’t think any birders knew the place existed before last year. You see, Raccoon Key is a small, privately owned island near Jekyll Island. From what I understand, the owners approached GOS last year about the possibility of offering field trips there. They worked out a deal and offered some trips during last year’s meeting. I wasn’t able to attend that gathering, so I made sure to go this time. And I’m glad I did.

Raccoon Key is about 200 acres of diked-off freshwater marsh (fed from an aquifer), saltwater marsh, beach, and vegetation. The only man-made structures are a boat dock and building, with a generator to supply power for lights and plumbing. After disembarking the boat, we stowed some gear at the lodge and planned our attack of the island. Basically, that just entailed a lot of walking around.

First, we checked out the marsh around the boat dock. Common Yellowthroats on the path were joined by a relatively cooperative Seaside Sparrow. While most of the group was trying to pish up the Seaside for better views and pictures, I turned around to check out the other side of the path. If there is a group of birders all looking in one direction, I like to look elsewhere to see what else is around (unless that group is actively looking for a particular bird I really want to see). The strategy paid off when I spotted a sharp-tailed sparrow perched up on some reeds. But which one? I got my scope on it as quickly as I could and found it to be a beautiful Nelson’s Sparrow. Finally! This was a long-overdue lifer for me. They are fairly common winter residents on the Georgia coast, and I’ve looked for them often, but just haven’t had any luck. But this one cooperated nicely, and even flew close enough that I was able to get a picture.

Nelsons Sparrow

As we continued on, we found the expected shorebirds, such as Killdeer, Semi-palmated Plover, both Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpiper. A Whimbrel flew over, and we later found three of them alongside three Marbled Godwits. A good number of wading birds adorned the trees like ornaments, including both Night-herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Wood Storks.

Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks

We also thoroughly checked the trees for smaller birds. This was the middle of fall migration, so we were expecting to find some migrants about. We had a decent, but not spectacular, count of eight warbler species. But those that we did see, we had great views of. Someone literally almost stepped on a Black-throated Green Warbler! Unfortunately, the great views didn’t translate into great photos. One of the best I managed to get was this gorgeous male Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Raccoon Key certainly has a lot of potential as a birding spot. We had a great day, though not as good as the trip the day after ours. They seemed to see all of the birds we had, plus many more, including one of the best birds of the weekend, a Red-necked Phalarope. Below is the list of 64 species that I, personally, had.

Roseatte Spoonbills and Wood Storks in flight

  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Wood Stork
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
  • Northern Harrier
  • American Kestrel
  • Clapper Rail
  • Sora
  • Common Moorhen
  • American Coot
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Killdeer
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Willet
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Whimbrel
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Western Sandpiper
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Dunlin
  • dowitcher species
  • Laughing Gull
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Royal Tern
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Tree Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • House Wren
  • Marsh Wren
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Nelson’s Sparrow
  • Seaside Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
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September 20th, 2010

My New Birding Superpower?

When I bird my “local patch” – my neighborhood’s preserve – I rarely have a specific target in mind. You just never know what’s going to be there. But today was different. I really wanted to see a Philadelphia Vireo.

I just love that adorable, little bird. That admission may cost me some birder points, or some such, but I stand by it. And I don’t get to see them very often. They come through Georgia, or at least my little part, the last ten or so days each September. I’ve seen at least one here each of the last four years, with the exception of the last (I was a little distracted by the birth of my first child, but that’s ok, she’s even more adorable than Philly Vireos).

So it wasn’t much of a stretch to wish for a Philly today. But it didn’t start out very promising. Most of my vireo sightings have been in the clearing around a small observation deck in the middle of the preserve. (I have no idea why it’s there; it’s not really overlooking anything. But I see a lot of birds from it, so I’m not complaining.) But when I got to the deck this morning, there was nothing around except for a couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that have been fighting over a patch of jewelweed. So I waited. Eventually, a Red-eyed Vireo popped up, but that was about it.

I was just about to leave when I thought, “I just want to see a Philadelphia Vireo”. The exact moment after that plea went through my mind, I spotted this little guy.

Philadelphia Vireo

Two Philadelphia Vireos had materialized in the willows. They foraged around the clearing for a couple of minutes, and then disappeared as suddenly as they appeared.

You can choose to believe that this was just a case of a birder knowing exactly when and where a particular species was likely to show up. But me? I’m wondering if this isn’t some sort of latent birding superpower. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow – I’m going to be thinking about how much I want to see a Mourning Warbler.

Philadelphia Vireo

You summoned?

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September 14th, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Until this last week, I haven’t birded much recently. It’s been hard to get out since there’s a baby girl at home who likes to spend time with her daddy. And who can say no to that? But if I’m honest with myself, it’s also been tough to find motivation to get out. Summer is hot (and unbearably muggy here in the South) and there aren’t that many birds out.

Thank goodness for fall and migration! The chance of seeing different birds is a good motivation. But since I still have the time constraints to deal with, I mostly bird close to home. So I’m really fortunate that our neighborhood has its own nature preserve.

Gray-cheeked Thrush at my neighborhood preserve

Gray-cheeked Thrush at my neighborhood preserve

It’s very nice, yes, but it’s definitely not what you would call a birding hotspot. It’s small, about 10 acres, but with fairly nice habitat. I’ve birded it five times in the last week, for about an hour each morning, and have only averaged 25 species a day. So the diversity isn’t all that great on any given visit. But, on the bright side, there’s usually something new every day. One day it’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, the next a Worm-eating Warbler.

A single morning at a true migration hotspot would probably yield more species than I get here all season. But still, it’s great to have a place so close by where I can loose myself amongst the birds for an hour or so. And, if nothing else, it appears that my birding slump is over.

Northern Waterthrush at my neighborhood preserve

Northern Waterthrushes are very common here in migration

June 28th, 2010

Looking for Least Bitterns at Altamaha

Least Bitterns are not rare in Georgia. They breed here, mostly along the coast, though there is some inland nesting. And apparently a few may even winter here. But, embarrassingly, I had never seen one in Georgia. I bird the coast mostly in fall and winter, so I’ve just never been where they are when they are here.

But that changed this weekend. My wife, daughter, and I joined my dad and stepmother in Savannah for a long weekend. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do much birding, but I did want to set aside a little time to try to fill this empty box in my state checklist. Thus, a trip to Altamaha WMA was in order.

Altamaha WMA

View of Altamaha WMA from the observation tower

Altamaha is a fantastic place. The impoundments that formerly grew rice are now managed for ducks and other wildlife. From my vantage point on an observation tower I could see that the place was teeming with birds. Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were flying and calling all over the place. Every heron and egret that you would expect, even a couple of Black-crowned Night-herons, could be seen. Glossy Ibis outnumbered their white cousins. Well, on the ground at least. There were always some White Ibis in the air above, from pairs to large skeins. A pair of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks would fly around every now and then.

You couldn’t help but smile at the family of cute, fuzzy, black Common Moorhen chicks. A single, resplendent Purple Gallinule made a short appearance. I can’t believe I left the digiscoping adapter in the car, making it tough to get any pictures.

Black-necked Stilt display flight

Black-necked Stilt in a display flight

The most interesting thing, behavior-wise, was the displaying of some Black-necked Stilts. I could see two stilts feeding in the impoundment on one side. But every few minutes one of them would take off and fly around slowly in a circle, all the while calling kek kek kek incessantly. When it was done, a stilt from the other side of the dike would respond by doing the same thing. At the time, I thought that perhaps the raised dike was the boundary between two territories and that these were border disputes. More on this later.

But no Least Bittern. I scanned and rescanned the edges of the impoundments, hoping to spot one clinging to the vegetation, but to no avail. I only had a few minutes left, due to an appointment elsewhere, when I saw a small bird fly into a cluster of reeds. It was out of the corner of my eye, so all I was able to make out were large, buffy wing patches. That was enough to know it was my Least Bittern! I got my scope on the spot in time to see the bird, partially obstructed, clamber deeper into the vegetation and out of sight.

Whew. It was a great relief to finally see it, just in the nick of time. But looking back, I think I enjoyed the stilts even more. I had never expected to see such a shorebird display here. The arctic tundra, sure, but not in Georgia. That gives me hope that I haven’t become a crazed, list-obsessed birder. Not totally, anyway.

Back to the stilt display. After doing some research later, I think I was wrong about what they were doing. They may have been mobbing me. They were flying nearby or right over me, no more than twenty feet above my head. That could easily be explained, though, if the dike were the territory boundary with the tower at the corner. But both The Shorebird Guide and Pete Dunne mention that stilts will aggressively defend their territory against intruders, including humans, by giving incessant flight calls. I guess they took offense to my presence. I honestly didn’t think it was me at the time, but if it was, hopefully I didn’t disturb them too badly.

And now I’ve learned something new. Gotta love birding.