A Birder’s Guide To The Biggest Week

Kirtland's Warbler. Biggest Week 2012. Photo by Greg Miller

Northwest Ohio in May is…for the birds. No really. It is a very birdy place. It has been my favorite place to visit on the North American continent in May for more than 30 years. And I cannot wait to go back there again this May. It is home to one of the most amazing displays of bird migration. There are many migration hot spots in the East. Your home state probably has a few good areas. And maybe you have ticked all 37 species of eastern wood warblers that occur here in Northwest Ohio, seen all the thrushes, tanagers, buntings, and orioles (and many, many more species). So why visit Biggest Week? Aren't there huge crowds of people? Isn't it hard to find lodging and places to eat? Can't I see all those birds somewhere else? Even if you have all these birds, you should visit this area of Northwest Ohio at least once in your life and experience it for yourself. Yes. There are huge crowds. But with a little planning and patience, your experience should still be unforgettable–even if you don't enjoy big crowds. For lodging and food you should also plan ahead or you will find yourself 30 minutes (or more) away from the comforts and conveniences “civilization”.

Scarlet Tanager. Biggest Week 2012. Photo by Greg Miller

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Getting Ready for the 2013 Big O Birding Festival

Packing up this morning (3/11/2013) for an early morning departure for Ft. Myers, FL.  I will be a keynote speaker, classroom presenter, and field guide for the 2013 Big “O” Birding Festival on the southwest shores of Lake Okeechobee in Florida.  Florida?  Again?  Oooooh, yeaaaah!!!  Gonna see some kites (and many other cool birds) like these guys:

Swallow-tailed Kite in flight - near Lake Okeechobee FL - 2012-04-22 IMG_3348

Swallow-tailed Kite in flight – near Lake Okeechobee FL – 2012-04-22 photo by Greg Miller

Snail Kite adult male hunting- near Lake Okeechobee FL - 2012-04-22 IMG_3500

Snail Kite adult male hunting- near Lake Okeechobee FL – 2012-04-22 photo by Greg Miller

 

2013 Brooks Bird Club Winter Meeting

What a nice weekend in North Bend State Park near Cairo, WV!  I got a chance to bird with this friendly group Saturday, March 9, 2013.  I spoke to them Saturday evening and then we watched the movie, The Big Year.  This morning (Sunday) I got a chance to visit local feeders there to see a real treat, Evening Grosbeaks!

Evening Grosbeaks with a female in flight - Cairo WV - 2013-03-10 IMG_8398

Evening Grosbeaks with a female in flight – Cairo WV – 2013-03-10 photo by Greg Miller

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Florida Space Coast 2013 – Wrap Up

Winding out my Florida trip after the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival was over, I tried once again for some of the rare birds that were still around.  The bananaquit had not been seen in the last 2 weeks, but the western spindalis was still sporadically being reported from Virginia Key near Miami, FL.  Although unsuccessful again with the spindalis, the bonus bird was a nice adult dark morph Short-tailed Hawk.  Returning in late afternoon to Green Cay in Boynton Beach, FL, I was successful with the La Sagra’s Flycatcher.  Not only did I get to hear it call, but I got to see it in fading light, perched and fairly well hidden behind quite an array of branches and leaves.  Unfortunately, not a one of my photos turned out very well.  None are presented here.  But the Short-tailed Hawk?  Ah. Well.  That was quite rewarding as this species goes.  It is often seen flying at quite a height or you just catch a glimpse as it zooms overhead at treetop level hunting the treetops for small birds.

Short-tailed Hawk adult dark morph above treeline - Virginia Key - near Key Biscayne, FL - 2013-01-30

Short-tailed Hawk adult dark morph above treeline – Virginia Key – near Key Biscayne, FL – 2013-01-30 photo by Greg Miller

 

Short-tailed Hawk adult dark morph overhead showing whiter patches in underwing - Virginia Key - near Key Biscayne FL - 2013-01-30

Short-tailed Hawk adult dark morph overhead showing whiter patches in underwing – Virginia Key – near Key Biscayne FL – 2013-01-30 photo by Greg Miller

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Florida Space Coast 2013 – part 1

Anyone who keeps bird lists and wants to get the best bang for the buck has to go to several geographic locations at different seasons.  For Big Year folks, this means (in addition to chasing rarities) visits to what refer to as “The Big 5”.  These are the 5 states where you can pick up a huge number of regular species and also be in proximity to potential rarities showing up while you are there.  These states are Alaska, California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida.  All of these states have unique specialty birds–birds that occur more commonly there than many other places (and a few are completely unique to those areas).  What’s it like to visit a birding festival in one of these locations?  Read on.  I will tell you about my trip to Brevard County, Florida for the an old and well-recognized festival, the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  The epicenter of the birding action here is the very birdy Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, FL.

I arrived in Florida late Sunday afternoon, 1/20/2013, with 3 hours of daylight to burn.  Spending that time at Merritt Island NWR seemed like a good plan.  And 70 species later I would say,  “Yes.  That was a good choice.”

Merritt Island NWR is a big wildlife refuge near Cape Canaveral where the space shuttle launches occurred.  Here are a few pics from the Black Point Wildlife Drive.

Northern Pintail male in alternate plumage - Merritt Island NWR - near Titusville FL - 2013-01-20

Northern Pintail male in alternate plumage – Merritt Island NWR – near Titusville FL – 2013-01-20 photo by Greg Miller

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South Texas December 2012 Days 7-10

Days 7 & 8 were chili for South Texas with one day’s high in the low 60s. Normally, I would have been out anyways but these two days found me indoors doing paperwork and getting caught up on stuff that people sometimes refer to as “responsibility”.  Days 9 & 10 were back to normal with leisurely visits to Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, TX and Estero Llano Grande near Weslaco, TX.

Quinta Mazatlan is a lush little urban gem set in the city of McAllen, TX not far from the airport. It is a place one can easily get some of the Texas specialty birds like Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, and Great Kiskadee…while watching bird feeders. This is a lazy birder’s treat. I enjoy watching feeders sometimes. It’s quite relaxing.

Entrance road to Quinta Mazatlan

Entrance road to Quinta Mazatlan photo by Greg Miller

The entrance road (which you walk–no cars inside the park) is a great place to see and hear the raucous chicken-like birds, Plain Chachalacas.

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Peak Week of Species of Birds in Ohio in 9 Regions

Prothonotary Warbler Magee Marsh 2011-05-09

Prothonotary Warbler Magee Marsh 2011-05-09

I am arbitrarily interrupting my posts from my trip to South Texas to present the results of more of my amateur research from the data at eBird.  If you are not logging your sightings into eBird, 2013 would be a great time to start.  It is easy to do and is fun.  For me, it was this tinkering around with data that got me hooked on eBird.  It opened my eyes to a whole new world of data on a very wide scale.  Besides, if you think about it for very long, you should come to the conclusion that if you care about birds, you should be reporting your sightings to science.  This is our Citizen Science project. (and here you thought your Science Fair project in high school would be your last). Continue reading

South Texas December 2012 Day 6

Gallery

This gallery contains 25 photos.

Most all of our group left the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas to return to their respective homes.  Sunday morning I drove to San Benito to the home of Terry and Marci Fuller for breakfast.  Jeff Gordon, President of … Continue reading

South Texas December 2012 Days 4 and 5

Day 4 I didn’t carry my camera.  It looked a little like rain and I only had a very short time to bird.  I took my birding friend, Dan Sanders back to McAllen airport so he could return home to Ohio quickly to tick the Varied Thrush that had showed up while he was in Texas.

Day 5 was a Saturday.  Those of us that remained left McAllen, TX early and headed north to Raymondville, TX to visit the Hunke Ranch (owners Phil & Karen were gracious hosts).  Our primary target was Ferruginous Pygmy-owl.  We found two of them a hundred yards away behind the ranch house in a small group of trees.

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl - Hunke Ranch  - Raymondville, TX - 2012-12-08  Photo by Greg Miller

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl – Hunke Ranch – Raymondville, TX – 2012-12-08 Photo by Greg Miller

Then we got into a couple vehicles to tour the Hunke’s Ranch.  One of the vehicles was open.  It was a converted Chevy Suburban that looked like a Safari tour vehicle.  I chose this one to ride in.

700 plus club members in ranch tour vehicle

700 plus club members in ranch tour vehicle Photo by Jeff Gordon

Here’s one of the first birds we found on our tour after enjoying great views of the tiny little Ferruginous Pygmy-owl.

White-tailed Hawk adult - Hunke Ranch near Raymondville, TX - 2012-12-08

White-tailed Hawk adult – Hunke Ranch near Raymondville, TX – 2012-12-08 Photo by Greg Miller

The White-tailed Hawk is an interesting hawk that goes through cycles.  Here is what a first year White-tailed Hawk looks like.

White-tailed Hawk 1st yr - Hunke Ranch - Raymondville TX - 2012-12-08

White-tailed Hawk 1st yr – Hunke Ranch – Raymondville TX – 2012-12-08 Photo by Greg Miller

Finally, we came across a kingbird.  The differences between Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds can be very subtle.  Thankfully, this kingbird varified its identity by calling for us.  It is a Couch’s Kingbird.

Couch's Kingbird distant on fence - Hunke Ranch - Raymondville TX - 2012-12-08

Couch’s Kingbird distant on fence – Hunke Ranch – Raymondville TX – 2012-12-08 photo by Greg Miller

 

From left to right: Al Levantin, Phil & Karen Hunke, Greg Miller, Jeff Gordon, Sandy Komito

From left to right: Al Levantin, Phil & Karen Hunke, Greg Miller, Jeff Gordon, Sandy Komito at the Hunke Ranch near Raymondville, TX 2012-12-08     Photo by Jeff Gordon

South Texas December 2012 Day 3

Yah. Yah. Yah.  I’m waaay behind. It’s hard to keep up with Internet communication here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas when you spend all your time outdoors in the nice weather looking at fantastic birds, butterflies and moths, dragonflies, flowers, and plants.  It is like another world here compared to my home in Ohio.

The third day of my trip was cool.  Ten of the 700+ Club birders (the few crazies who’ve traveled the North American continent and have recorded over 700 species of birds in a single year).  We all met in the morning at the World Bird Center’s Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park south of McAllen, TX.

Here’s a picture of sunrise at Bentsen.

sunrise at Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

sunrise at Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Our first stop was the boat ramp overlooking the resaca (oxbow).

Resaca at Bentsen Rio Grande with 700+ club - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Resaca at Bentsen Rio Grande with 700+ club – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Near the restrooms we found the reported red-naped sapsucker, a great bird for the Valley.  Unfortunately, yours truly captured some photos of branches in focus and the bird out of focus.  Upon switching to manual focus, the bird flew away.  Who knew birds were afraid of manual focus?  sigh.  A distant Altamira Oriole lit in the top of a tree in morning sun.  Too bad it’s so far away.

Altamira Oriole in distant treetop - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Altamira Oriole in distant treetop – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Next on the agenda was to try to find the previously reported Northern Beardless Tyrannulet–a little nondescript bird whose name is longer than the actual bird!

700+ club looking at Northern Beardless Tyrannulet - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX -2012-12-06

700+ club looking at Northern Beardless Tyrannulet – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX -2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

This time I got a lucky moment and captured a photo of this small, not so colorful bird.

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - 2012-12-06

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Green Jays had been calling all morning and were flying from tree-to-tree around us.  I finally spent a little “me” time away from the group and closer to the feeders.  Ahh.  Green Jay Therapy.  Here’s a few photos to get you through your day.

Green Jay - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Green Jay – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Green Jay in tree looking away - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Green Jay in tree looking away – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Green Jay on arch - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Green Jay on arch – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Green Jay on wooden feeder - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Green Jay on wooden feeder – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

After spending a little more time in Bentsen, we walked out of the park and headed for Anzalduas County Park a little west of Bentsen.  On the way out, one of the many noisy and conspicuous Great Kiskadees lit in a treetop for a photo opportunity.  I think I got a pretty good angle on this one, don’t you think?

Great Kiskadee in treetop in morning light - Bentsen Rio Grande SP - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Great Kiskadee in treetop in morning light – Bentsen Rio Grande SP – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

On to Anzalduas.  Here, you can look across the water and easily see Mexico.  Birds on the other side count for you Mexico list and not for your ABA Area list (American Birding Association draws a boundary at the Rio Grande River. The list applies to where the bird is, not where you are standing). So, occasionally you see good birds on the other side of the water–like this Ringed Kingfisher, for example.

Ringed Kingfisher on distant snag - Mexican side from Anzalduas County Park - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Ringed Kingfisher on distant snag – Mexican side from Anzalduas County Park – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

This Green Kingfisher was more cooperative and flew across the water to the U.S. side.

Green Kingfisher in flight - Anzalduas County Park - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Green Kingfisher in flight – Anzalduas County Park – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

The sun was bright and hot.  Sometimes birds pose in bright sunlight, but the photos are hard to get “right”–at least for this amateur photographer.  The bright sun can wash out color on lit areas and the shadows can be so sharp as to hide any details on the shaded portions.  But that is all technical stuff.  You’ll have to use your imagination to compensate for this photo of a Vermillion Flycatcher–a nice adult male.

Vermillion Flycatcher on treetop in sharp lighting - Anzalduas County Park - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Vermillion Flycatcher on treetop in sharp lighting – Anzalduas County Park – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

And here’s a picture of a butterfly.  Yeah.  Even this birder is starting to pay more attention to other things.  The curiosity factor will take you many places.  I spotted this little gem on our way back to our vehicles.  Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for identifying it.  I’m still very new at this.  But I did notice that it was different.  It’s a Red-bordered Pixie, thanks to Jeff Gordon, President of the ABA (American Birding Association) for the identification on this one.

Red-bordered Pixie - Anzalduas County Park - near McAllen TX - 2012-12-06

Red-bordered Pixie – Anzalduas County Park – near McAllen TX – 2012-12-06 photo by Greg Miller

Later in the evening, we all went to see John Vanderpoel’s presentation on his Big Year and then we went out to eat.  Another fun day out.