Thursday, May 29, 2014

Rochester Happenings

I've had an awesome opportunity these past few days to grab a few great lifers while in SE Minnesota visiting family. My cousins live nestled up against a forested area, and also within walking distance from a local hotspot named Quarry Hill Park. Almost immediately upon arrival, I grabbed my cousin, Pete, and headed out the door to the Quarry. We stopped to pick up their neighbors dog, Zoe, who would join us for our walk. Early on, I realized that trying to use autofocus on my camera within a dense forest would be futile, but as my manual focus skills are lacking, I continued to use the autofocus until I couldn't stand it anymore. My only lifer for that day would be a Canada Warbler, which was nice as it hadn't been documented in the Quarry yet. It was that day that I realized how much my warbler song IDing skills had deteriorated from a couple of months before. Granted, I had only learned the more common western warblers, but even that would have been immensely helpful for future outings. The next day, May 25th, was my other cousins graduation party, at which I was enlisted to help all around and wasn't able to escape the craziness until the remaining half hour of the party. Again, it was me and my cousin, and also a local friend. That day I snatched up two lifers: Brown-headed Cowbird and Swainson's Thrush. I talked to Pete about how I wanted to grab as many midwestern warblers as I could, and that we'd need to do more serious birding than just walking. He agreed, and the next day I saw many more lifers than the day previous. The new birds were the following: Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, and Song Sparrow. I had been hearing stories of the birds seen at their house and was really hoping to see them. They had seen Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Ruby-throated Hummers, and Baltimore Orioles recently, but the only one that I ever caught a glimpse of was the Indigo Bunting, but even that I'm only 90% sure that it was actually a INBU. Everyone else but me had seen the RTHU, as I was (unsuccessfully) trying to local some warblers in their backyard. On Tuesday, we left Zoe behind, as she was a little loud and distracting. This was by far the most exciting day as we started out early in the morning in order to get the birds at peak hour. The first birds for the morning were a pair of nesting Eastern Bluebirds found just off the beaten path. Around that time I also saw a Red-eyed Vireo. The next few birds weren't found until the very end of the trip, and were pretty unexpected. I pulled Pete along to the nature center to see if I could snag the Ruby-throated Hummer at the feeders down there. While I didn't get it, I did talk to a worker about the possibility of seeing a Pileated Woodpecker. He mentioned that I wouldn't have a ton of luck finding the Pileated in the Quarry, as they were more of a rarity in the local sense. As we headed back home, slightly disappointed, I saw something unfamiliar, so I carefully chased it down until I could get a good look at it. It ended up being a Gray Catbird, lifer #75. While chasing, I heard something very weird and oddly familiar, so I looked up and saw a flash of red and black, and immediately knew that I had seen a Pileated Woodpecker. I sprinted over to an opening in the trees to nab a terrible but adequate picture of one of the two Pileated Woodpeckers that we saw. Both Pete and I were very excited about this sighting, even though he had already seen a Pileated before. In retrospect, he might have been more excited for me than he was about the woodpecker, but whichever way it was, it was exciting. I thought that'd be the only birds seen for that portion of the trip, but after looking at my photos from a little walk around their property, I found one that was almost completely dark. Using my amazing photo editing skills, I saw that underneath the blackness was a Hooded Warbler. A Hooded Warbled?! Yes, to my utter amazement, I had seen a Hooded Warbler, out of range.
Also to note but not terribly exciting was the Red-bellied Woodpecker that I saw within 5 minutes of arriving to my grandparents in Omaha, NE on May 23rd.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

White-breasted Nuthatch

The Quarry. Isn't it beautiful?

White-tailed deer

Unidentified bird. Some Empidonax sp.?

Swainson's Thrush

Mallard pair

Better photo of the Swainson's Thrush

Singing Male Northern Cardinal

Canadian Toad

Northern Leopard Frog

Mallard male

Group of males

Odonata sp.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Red-eyed Vireo

Eastern Bluebird with nesting material.

Flying in to the nest.

Field Sparrow

American Redstart

Pileated Woodpecker

Gray Catbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Hooded Warbler!

Good birding to you all!

Friday, April 18, 2014

I've Reached 50 Birds!

Yes, I am ridiculously about this. I've been making guesses about what bird will be my 50th, and I had made the following list: Mountain Bluebird, Mountain Chickadee, Common Raven, any Grebe, Steller's Jay, Common Grackle, Horned Lark, and the like. Really, it would be a matter of where I was.
Here is the little story attached to my 50th bird.
This morning I had scheduled to take my sister's senior portraits after I got home from practice. We had planned on taking "artsy" shots with the sun, but unfortunately the clouds moved in and the sun completely disappeared from view. We got dropped off near a berm that had optimal photographic qualities. After taking a few photos, we decided to see if the pond on the other side had any decent spots. Upon reaching the top of the berm, I immediately exclaimed "American Avocet! It's my 50th!" I had (sadly) been forced into taking off my birding lens in exchange for my 50mm portrait lens, so I did not get any good close-ups of the Avocets. There were also a couple Killdeer, 2 Canada Geese, and many Red-Wing Blackbirds. The major highlight (along with the photos that yielded) were my newest addition to my Life List, the American Avocet, but I also got to see a new state bird, Killdeer.

This is a major step-up for me, however small it may seem. I've only been hard-core birding since I went to see my grandparents in December, although I've been mildly interested in birds for years. I now wonder what my 100th bird will be, and hope that it will be as memorable as my 50th, or perhaps even more so.
Here is my link to my eBird checklist

American Avocets with Killdeer flying in the middle

American Avocets

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sandhill Cranes and Wild Adventures

This weekend, my mom and I decided to travel out to the Nebraska Sandhills to see the Greater Sandhill Cranes with the Boulder County Audubon Society.

We set out at 9:45 on Friday morning for Lewellen, NE. The first adventure was running into a 40 second long hail storm on I-76, which I quickly photographed for documentation.
PS-click on the photos to view them larger.

Our first stop was in Big Springs, NE for a quick lunch where I got my first "official" birds for the trip: male and female house sparrows. I had seen some unidentifiable buteos and something that looked kind of like a grouse while on I-76, but since I couldn't ID them, I didn't count them.

House Sparrow

After arriving in Lewellen around 1:30pm with plenty of time before the potluck at 6:30, we drove over to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, hoping to see some waterfowl. On the way to the (closed) visitor center I got many lifers including my favorite bird, the Wood Duck, whom we spotted flying from a wooded marshy area just off the road.

Wood Ducks

Another highlight was the four Killdeer that I spotted (and heard) while heading back.


Just before turning around in Crescent Lake NRW, we watched these White-Tailed Deer.

We had just enough time to check in to our motel room on the north side of Lake McConaughy before meeting at the Old Lewellen Bridge, just south of Lewellen.

Old Lewellen Bridge

Our group had the privilege of enjoying a fantastic fly-in of the Greater Sandhill Cranes just after sunset, apparently one of the better ones that our leader has seen. The sky was clear of clouds, allowing the last rays of the sun to permeate the North Platte and shed a cool glow upon the horizon.

The Fly-In


We left fairly soon after the fly-in as to get back to our motel in time to get some sleep before our 5:20am awakening to see the great fly-out at the main Lewellen bridge just before sunrise. Surprisingly, the morning was as clear as the night before and allowed for some great views of the cranes, including the massive liftoff.

The Cranes on the North Platte

The Fly-Out

Sunrise Over the North Platte

A skull believed to be that of an opossum

Once the majority of the cranes had gone, we regrouped and talked about the morning plans. We divided to eat breakfast and planned to get back together at Ash Hollow Cemetery for a beautiful walk through Ash Hollow area.

We all learned about Rachel E Pattison who had recently been married and almost immediately after her marriage, started off on the Oregon Trail. She died at Ash Hollow area of cholera, one among many deaths due to cholera in this area, despite Ash Hollow having the first potable water in 300 miles.

The leader of the group, Steve Jones, lead us through Ash Hollow, along with his friend Jeff, the superintendent of Ash Hollow. I completely forgot about taking photos of the different species of long grass, native grasses, and other plants that we came upon, but I do remember their names. We saw Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Buffalo Grass, Switch Grass, Canada Wild Rye, some "clown" sage, and a Sandhill x Little Bluestem hybrid.

Also seen (by me only, I think) was a pair of mating water striders.

Aquarius Remigis - Water Striders

Throughout the trip we encountered numerous "odd" things that you normally wouldn't come across in a city, which we spent a good deal of time laughing about.

While en route to Crescent Lake, we had a semi with a trailer chase us up and down the gravel roads in the middle of nowhere. I'm not sure what the semi was doing there or where it was going, but it was too funny to not snap a picture.

I noticed this sign for Omaha Beach while going to our motel just off of Lake McConaughy. I though it was very weird because a) We weren't in France b) Omaha is around 300 miles away c) Omaha Beach wasn't a good place from WWII, and d) The beach isn't really a beach at this part of lake, as far as I know.

I laughed pretty hard at this ironic installment of plumbing at our motel, considering that we were there to watch the cranes.

We saw this sign in Ash Hollow State Historical Area, referring to the fresh spring water that the pioneers found.

Although I don't have photographic proof, I do have a great story of this one. I was in charge of packing all of the food for this trip, so I planned ahead and made granola bars. Here is what I packed: 5 big granola bars, 4 apples, 2 bananas, 2 oranges, crackers, and some almonds. Seems like that'd be good for a few meals, right? Not so much. Before dinner on Friday night, 3 granola bars, 1 apple, the crackers, and half the almonds were already eaten. I had not planned out how hungry I'd be and thus didn't pack enough food. So, on Saturday morning we each had a orange and I ate the granola bar, leaving 3 apples and half the almonds left over. After the fly-out, we were both starving and headed over to Oshkosh to grab a bite to eat. Luckily for us, the local cafe was accommodating and we found 2 things we could eat: a fruit bowl and hashbrowns. The fruit cup, however, wasn't fresh fruit. It was canned plums. Plums! Who eats canned plums? Well, I do, apparently. We ended up having a distinct lack of food the entire trip and thoroughly enjoyed a meal of beans and rice when we returned home.

One of the things that I thought about a lot of the trip was our group. Varied as it was, the vast majority were in their 50s and 60s, perhaps some even older. I was the second youngest and my mom was the third youngest, to give some perspective. Yes, that makes 2 "kids" on the trip, total. It made me realize that this generation of birders and naturalists (those in their 50s and 60s) is eventually going to die, and there won't be anyone to replace them if we aren't careful. Is my generation so removed from nature that they won't have any passion for protecting and preserving it? That whole idea is so disturbing that I'd rather not think of what the world will be like when I'm older.

This trip was almost what I'd call a dream trip for me. It was quiet and contemplative, exactly what I have been looking for. I really loved the feeling of being able to go anywhere and do anything with my life on my back. I carried around all my clothes and equipment with me and left virtually nothing at the motel. (I left my knitting, but I knew I wasn't going to use it anyways.) I really like having that freedom. I don't have to worry about forgetting anything and I actually didn't miss anything at home. It makes me wonder now that I really need to be happy. Perhaps I own way too much stuff that I think makes me happy but instead is clogging my life with unnecessary things.

Seeing these cranes isn't something I'll forget anytime soon, especially with their bugles engrained into my mind. The hauntingly beautiful and old notes that rang across the skies aren't something that you can try to recreate, you have to be there and watch them fly in to the same spots that they've been roosting in for thousands of years to really understand the history and pure beauty of the Greater Sandhill Cranes.

List of birds found:
Northern Harrier
Northern Shoveler
Wood Duck
Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-Winged Blackbird
Canada goose
Double-Crested Cormorant
Common Goldeneye
Rough-Legged Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Bald Eagle
Lesser Scaup
Marsh Wren (heard only)
Turkey Vulture
Wild Turkey
House Finch
House Sparrow
Eurasian Collared-Dove
American Robin
Western Meadowlark
American Kestrel
Green-Winged Teal
Ruddy Duck