This winter's gull drama involves a Ross's gull. Here's one heck of an eBird list with pictures.
Bald eagles might be more of a problem on free range chicken farms than we realized.
Newer podcasts to check out:
This winter's gull drama involves a Ross's gull. Here's one heck of an eBird list with pictures.
Bald eagles might be more of a problem on free range chicken farms than we realized.
Newer podcasts to check out:
Ten years ago while volunteering at The Raptor Center I went to my friend Gail Buhl's office. Though she's in charge of the eduction birds, she's a licensed wildlife rehabber and sometimes takes in other creatures. That day she had a porcupet aka a baby porcupine that had been found on the side of the road next to its dead mother who had presumably been hit by a car. I took a video of it eating a banana while having the hiccups. It's had over 2 million views and that doesn't count the times it's been stolen from my channel and placed on someone else's. After the porcupine was old enough he went to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center where he's lived ever since teaching kids and adults what's true and false when it comes to porcupines.
Recently I went to a conference at Wolf Ridge and got a chance to not only see him where he lives but to also see him in action in the classroom and outside during a tracking workshop. What a treat! So above is a ten year update.
Thank you to everyone who became new members of the American Birding Association last year and sited us as a reason. We won the trip to Canopy Tower in Panama! I was there back in 2012 and I've always wanted to go back!
Some Subarus now include an app that directs you to birds reported to eBird.
The debate goes on over how many species there are in the world.
Are you in the mood to travel? Want to go to Cuba? Come with me!
If you ever go birding around Falcon Dam in Texas, one of the routes to take to look for birds is through the campgrounds. There are some birds moving around and even better, campers often put out food for birds. You expect things like peanut butter and orange halves, but one camper put out marshmallows. And the birds were into it. Here's a video:
One of the things I noticed with that may not be evident in the video is that the birds seemed to recognize marshmallows as something worth while to eat, but they didn't stay and keep eating at it like I've seen birds do with suet, fruit or seed. It's like they got their fill of the flavor after only three or four bites.
Now the natural question is: are marshmallows good or at least safe for birds to eat? Wouldn't all that sugar be a bad thing? Maybe. But what about the food we already feed and recommend to birds like grape jelly or peanut butter? Let's look at some ingredients and by that I mean the garden variety stuff, not the fancy pants organic stuff at Whole Foods or your local co-op. Stuff the average bear would offer at their bird feeders.
Marshmallows: corn syrup, sugar, modified corn starch, dextrose, water, gelatin, artificial flavoring, trasodium pyrophosphate (whipping agent), artificial color (blue 1).
Peanut Butter: peanuts, sugar, molasses, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, fully hydrogenated soybean and rapeseed oil, mono and diglycerides, salt.
Grape Jelly: grapes, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit pectin, citric acid, sodium citrate.
Are these commonly fed items any better for birds than marshmallows? In some ways, I think birds know to limit things, they're better at than humans. Orioles, for example, go wild for grape jelly during spring migration, but once the insect hatches hit and they have chicks, they eat that and ignore the grape jelly until the chicks fledge. But we don't know about what the effects are long term. To my knowledge we don't have the studies to know if these foods are harmful in the long term, it's anecdotal at this point.
Should we stop offering this foods now? I don't know. But it is something to think about.
One of the coolest places I visited in 2016 also gave me one of the most unexpected experiences I've ever had in my life. While in Honduras we visited the bar at the Rio Santiago Nature Resort which is known for maintaining over 200 hummingbird feeders daily, including keeping them clean and full of fresh nectar throughout the day. The video above gives you a hint of what the hummingbird activity is like, but that really only scratches the surface. The sheer amount of hummingbird mass in the air and zipping around your head coupled with the wide variety of species is mind-blowing, especially for someone like me who lives in Minnesota with only one species regularly occurring.
But hummingbirds are not the only reason to visit and as much as we all wanted to plop down, have a beer and soak in some hot hummer action, our guide Elmer Escoto took us on a walk for something "very special if we are lucky." We meandered the trails on the resort property and found a few North American breeders that were just beginning their northward movement like wood thrush and gray catbird. But we also saw masked tityra, shining honeycreeper, brown jays and yellow-throated euphonias.
Elmer found us a young spectacled owl. They are just a little smaller than a great horned owl and eat a wide variety of small prey. This is a young bird that still had some white around the head but was already formidable in its adult size. And something as cool as an owl is definitely worth tearing some birders away from over 200 hummingbird feeders. We headed back down the trail and back to the bar...the better to work up a sweat for an ice cold beer.
So we settled down with our cameras and beers at the hummingbird feeders to take advantage of the dwindling daylight to get photos--though I was having more fun getting slow motion video of the hummers with my iPhone and my scope. Moments like this are one of my favorite parts of travel. We had already had a few days of glorious hiking and fabulous birds. The afternoon was a nicer relaxed moment to just sit and enjoy the colorful avian bounty around us. The air was hot, heavy with humidity (as welcome change from the still frigid Minnesota) and the beer was cool, You have the blissful moment of thinking how far from home you are, how different life is here and you still have a couple more days of adventure to go. I love moments where I can stop, be still and drink it all in, it's pure contentment.
And then a baby ocelot walked into the bar.
My mind went into overdrive. With mammals, especial predatory nocturnal ones, I never expect to ever see one outside of a zoo, I'm content to know that they are out there in the world. I never have to see them. That's something biologists and wildlife guides soaked in sweat, bug bites and intestinal parasites see--that's their reward. When I'm down at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas and see the ocelot crossing signs, I do keep watch but realize that I'm not going to see one. To have an ocelot show up and have it be an adorable young one to boot was over the top unexpected. It explored the bar, it killed and ate a mouse, it ran within feet of me.
The ocelot hopped on a table and we completely surrounded it. I asked the question that we all wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
"Can we touch it?"
What is it about us that we have to feel something with our hands to get a full and true experience? Seeing and hearing is wonderful, and I'll be honest smell is pretty up there with me (and yes, I sniffed the ocelot more than once). But touch...no observation is ever as deeply satisfying as the ability to touch the subject. I think with ocelots in particular since they are as masterful at camouflage as an owl, primarily nocturnal and will do whatever they can to avoid being seen by us, living their life on the their eating small mammals and birds. The colors and patterns of their fur hiding them from me in plain sight.
Since my Spanish is dodgier than my French, I asked Elmer what the back story was behind the young ocelot. He said that it had been found on a trail on the property as a small kitten, about the size of a human hand. It was brought and the decision was made to feed about house it until it was large enough to be on its own. The resort did this before with another ocelot several years ago. They raised a young female kitten and when she was old enough she roamed the yard and eventually disappeared when she was an adult. She returned a year later, denned up and and raised kittens.
The plan with this ocelot was to let it roam the property, learn to hunt--which it clearly was and keep inside at night until it was big enough to defend itself from larger predators.
As the group settled in to one more beer and talk of ocelots, I did what any modern woman does these days when something cool shows up--I took a selfie and immediately began posting it to social media.
But not all of them...
Some of my friends are well aware of the wild cat trade and they begged me to remove the photos because they felt they glorified wild animal ownership. When I pointed out that this was a not a pet but meant to be released to the wild when it was old enough, some of those friends were dubious of the young ocelot's origin. Was this truly found as an abandon kitten or was the mother killed so this kitten could be a tourist attraction?
All I know is that I know Elmer and I trust him so I trust the story of the ocelot's origin at the resort. The bar has over 200 hummingbird feeders and a steady birding clientele, why add a baby ocelot when the experience is already outstanding? The young ocelot appeared healthy, able to hunt mice on its own and had minimal interest in us apart from fingers it might chew on. In fact, compared to most of the animals I'd seen in Honduras, this was an exception because you could not see it's ribs. Several cows, horses, dogs and even pigs were emaciated by United States standards.
At the end of the day, Honduras is not the United States. It does not have the wildlife rehabilitation network and advancements we do here. People do the best they can with what they have and for many it is barely enough to take care of themselves and their children. I walked around that beautiful and wild country with a spotting scope that cost more than what many Hondurans make in a year.
To me travel is as much about learning as it is about experience. Sometimes you just have let an experience wash over you and learn from it. And when Life hands you a baby ocelot in a bar in Honduras, you go for it, douse yourself, revel in it.
Darkness descended and the hummingbirds disappeared. It was getting to be the time of night when the young ocelot would need to go inside and we had to head back to the Lodge at Pico Bonito for dinner. We escorted the ocelot to its night retreat. And we got another great look at a formidable predator.
The young spectacled owl had flown from its secluded spot to go hunting. It seemed quite interested in the small mammal in our midst. But soon that wild cat will be too big for the owl and join the nocturnal fray.
If you're ever interested in traveling with me, check out my events page. If you have a group of 8 or more people who'd like to go somewhere with me, let me know firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the reasons we started our Wildside Nature Tours Honduras trip at Panacam Lodge was that it is close to Santa Barbara Mountain National Park. Resplendent Quetzals are possible there, however, that appears to be my worldwide nemesis bird and we didn't see it. I'm beginning to think that is a bird I am simply not destined to see in the wild because I've been to a number of places where is should be "no problem" for me to find one and all I've gotten is the call and shadow. But I'm not a one bird woman and there were plenty of other birds for me to enjoy in our spot for resplendent quetzal.
The trails were rocky and slick with moisture. All of us had to take careful steps in our hiking shoes. A doctor once informed me that I have "weak kneecaps" and prone to things sliding out of joint. I try to exercise in a way to minimize that, but I'm also very careful about my footing in such situations, especially when I'm balancing my gear. Our mountain guide clearly lived in the area his whole life and easily managed the trails swiftly in only sneakers.
Despite the general lack of quetzals, we had great birds like flame-colored tanager, collared trogon, bushy-crested jay, golden-winged warblers and white-faced quail-dove. You can see our eBird list here.
After lunch we birded Archeological Park Los Naranjos. There are Mayan ruins that are about 28,000 years old and lots of lovely birds. You could easily spend three hours just around the main entrance. There were motmots, oropendolas and even a few North American songbirds to found.
And though we spent most of the late afternoon grabbing lifers and didn't really look at the ruins, we did make a quick walk to Lake Yojoa which was an outstanding view of the mountains (one of which we had been on top of in the morning). As the sun descended on this magnificent view we saw bare-throated tiger-herons, northern jacana, snail kite and purple gallinule. Just when we thought the view couldn't be more magical a few dozen nightjars filled the sky with their bouncy flight. The big treat for me was that it was a mix of common nighthawks and lesser nighthawks and what a treat to be able to study the differences side by side.
Space is filing up on my Cuba trip for April 2017, but we still have some room left if you'd like to join us. If you are on the fence, here are some reasons to go...
1. Commercial service to Havana began in November 2016 with non-stop service available from ten major US cities including Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta, Charlotte, JFK, Newark, Houston, and Los Angeles. There's been news since last summer that Twin Cities based Sun Country Airlines as been approved to fly to Cuba, but I'm not sure how soon they will be selling tickets.
2. Wouldn't you love to be able to say at parties, "So I was having breakfast in Havanna...," when starting a story? This trip will give you that.
3. Go pick up a penny. Hold that in your hand. Really feel that penny. That weighs more than the bee hummingbird, the world's smallest living bird endemic to the Cuban archipelago. To give you an idea, here are photos of them perched on thumbs and pencils. That's how tiny they are.
4. And speaking of endemics--Cuba has 25 species of birds that you can only see there! We're talking blue-headed quail-dove, Oriente warbler, the Tocororo (Cuba's national bird) and Zapata sparrow (a colorful sparrow--that's crazy talk). I love the songs of solitaires and I'm pretty excited to hear the endemic Cuban solitaire.
5. As much I love birds and base my travel around it, I want you to go home with a little bit of rest. And you can't go to Cuba with out getting in some culture. We'll visit the cave Che Guevara hid out in during the Cuba Missile Crisis, tour a tobacco plantation and even have time to explore Old Havanna.
6. I'll teach you all I know about smartphone digiscoping (and regular digiscoping too). At the end of each day, we'll use wifi to taunt our fiends with slomo video of bee hummingbirds and time lapse photography of flamingos while we sip cocktails. It will be delicious.
For more information, or ask logistics questions or sign up visit Holbrook Travel.
After a rough autumn, I decided to go through my photos and find things I haven't written about and some of the great things happened in 2016 Turns out, I never wrote on the blog about how much fun I had on my trip to Honduras with Wildside Nature Tours. I also think that I needed some time away from Honduras to digest what I saw. Honduras is heartbreakingly beautiful. Amidst all the rugged wildness, ancient culture and eye searing color, it's also a developing nation and life is very different than it is in the United States. So while there was overwhelming beauty and adventure to be had, there was also immense poverty.
We ended up staying at two different places in Honduras. The first two nights we were at Panacam Lodge which was foggy with mystery when we arrived. You just knew cool-ass wildlife was hidden, tucked away in the greenery.
I wanted to do a little unpacking and freshening up before our group met for dinner. As I took things out of my suitcase, I noted a spot where there was some kind of excrement. It was large, almost as large as a mouse but not quite. I looked up from where the pile was and just where the plaster met the wood in the ceiling I saw a crevice and some movement, definitely insect and probably a bit larger than what I'm used to.
When you travel, especially to countries where it's warm and humid--critters in your room are going to happen. Even if you paid for a single occupancy room on your tour, I guarantee you will have had some sort of roommate that's neither bipedal nor necessarily a mammal. I'm generally so tired at the end of the day that I can't care about what is in the room with me. There was a time I inadvertently spent the night with a bat at Canopy Tower in Panama--not the worst thing I've ever woken up next to and those are the sorts of things that add character to your travel stories. I opted to continue unpacking and ignore whatever movement was coming from the crevice in the top of my room.
Then I made the mistake of looking up once more.
Very large ants were now emerging from the crevice. Now when I say large, I mean about the size of a multivitamin that you take in the morning and wash down with a giant swig of juice so it doesn't get lodged in your throat. Even more alarming was that some had wings. I had a queen hatch happening in my room! This wasn't going to be just a few ants. This was going to be an "Antenning." I can put up with a few bugs, but I really didn't want to wake up at 2am and be covered in about 500 winged ants fluttering around looking for any crevice available to start a new colony. I considered the possibility of leaving doors and windows open, but considering that was even more insect life outside that would be more than happy to come in, I ruled that out. Also, a hatch would no doubt attract bats and I don't need to sleep with one again.
I put everything back in my suitcase and closed it up. I took some pictures of the ants and I went to the front desk with my haphazard Spanish to see about getting another room. I showed them the picture of the ants and tried to explain and got reassuring faces smiling and saying, "Sí, hormigas!"
Mercifully, Elmer Escoto our guide was walking by and heard my voice, "Amiga, what's going on?"
I showed him my phone and he said, "Oh no, you are about to have a lot of ants."
I asked about the possibility of switching rooms but the lodge was packed. "Amiga, go to dinner and I will make sure this is taken care of for you, ok," he said and I dutifully obeyed.
I'm an adventurous eater, especially when away from home so if there's an entire fish body that's been fried on the menu, I'm going to eat it. Elmer eventually joined our group and assured me the lodge was taking care of things. The fish practically melted in my mouth and paired well with the pickled onions. And any day plantains are involved with a meal is a great day. We dined, we discussed the the following day's itinerary and the bird possibilities ahead.
I went back to my room and heady notes of insecticide punctuated the air to my bungalow. The crevice showed no signs of life. My floor, however, looked like a battlefield out of Game of Thrones with about 500 dead and dying ants. I giggled and decided on a new rule for my room--unless you are laying on the bed, shoes must be worn at all times. I fell asleep safe in the knowledge that I would not be covered in in flying ant queens and let the days travel fatigue carry me away.
My alarm went off the next morning and there were even more dead and dying ants on the floor. I quickly dressed for our morning breakfast-birding and figured that the staff would sweep up the ant carcasses while I was out and I would return to an ant-free room.
We got in some woodcreeper and motmot action then had some breakfast. Everyone was curious about my ant situation and mercifully I was the only one who had an ant hatch. We birded areas off of Panacam grounds and I'll write more about that in another post. But just birding around the trails of the Lodge was very fun. Here's an eBird list of what was around the lodge. The bat falcon above was just outside the lodge grounds and ended up in an eBird incidental report.
When we did come back from birding other areas I was anxious to see what my room was like. Clearly the staff had worked hard to sweep up the ants...but more were still stumbling out of the crevice. I spent the night with fewer dead and dying ants and the next day we headed to Pico Bonito Lodge. When I was escorted to my bungalow at that lodge, I instantly heard a "chirp chirp chirp chirp" sound. Nervous, I looked at the staff and they said, "It's a house gecko, all the rooms have them."
I was ecstatic. If I had a house gecko, they would eat any ants about to hatch. They were a preferable roommate.
Panacam is a lovely lodge and close to many birding locations--including a spot for resplendent quetzals. The ant incident is just part of the joy of nature travel to remote areas. The staff did the best they could to keep me comfortable during the incident. And as I said, it's fun story to whip out at dinner parties when people ask me about my travels.
Ants aside or the "antsident" as Non Birding Bill calls it, if you are ever interested in traveling with me, especially if you're interested in digiscoping, laughing and relaxing as well as birding check out my tours page.
I teach quite a few workshops on digiscoping throughout the year. My preferred method is using a smartphone with a spotting scope, but I'll also use an SLR and spotting scope too. My friend Renner Anderson has heralded his love of "digibinning" which is using binoculars and his iPhone to take pictures.
I've always been been dubious of the digibinning technique and advise against it in my workshops. I think there is no easy way to hold the binoculars steady and get a good shot. Renner feels differently. "I always have my iPhone in the field anyway because I am already using it for eBird Mobile, field guides, Merlin and BirdsEye," Renner said. "I like to hike for adventure and exercise and usually don't bring my telescope so it's nice to be able to use my binoculars for getting documentary photos."
At my last digiscoping workshop that I hosted, Renner arrived and was ready to show off his digibinning techinique using his Swarovski ELs, iPhone and PhoneSkope iPhone case and bluetooth shutter release. I grabbed a quick video so you could see the Renner Technique in action and some of the photos he's gotten of birds in the last year.
Renner also add, "Because I attach the PhoneSkope case to just one eyepiece (the right eyepiece) I can use the other eyepiece to look through with my right eye and this puts me on the bird immediately and very easily, even birds in flight. I focus on the bird using the focus adjustment knob of the binoculars with my right index finger and center the bird in the visual field so I don't have to be looking through the iPhone viewing screen.
"Because both of my hands are holding the binoculars and I'm looking through the other eyepiece of the binoculars I don't have any way to trigger the shutter with my hands. For that reason I have developed the idea of holding the PhoneSkope remote shutter between my lips and activating the shutter by squeezing down on the PhoneSkope remote shutter by tightening my jaw. Not a pretty site but it works really well.
"Only problem here is that if the bird is close I have to adjust for the fact that although the bird may be centered in the field of view of the barrel I am looking through it will be off center for the barrel that the iPhone is looking through. This doesn't matter for birds at distance such as birds in flight.
"With my current technique with the PhoneSkope case attached to a single eyepiece I haven't figured out a way to secure the iPhone to the binoculars with a rubber band so I am always nervous that the iPhone might fall. Currently I just hold the round piece of the PhoneSkope adapter firmly against the binocular eyepiece with my right thumb
"Of course the Blue Tooth can drain the iPhone battery (not to mention the Gaia tracking app that I am using to document my hiking adventure and BirdsEye and eBird Mobile and Merlin and the field guide apps) so I do bring an extra battery along with me in the field."
Remember, you get a discount when you purchase a PhoneSkope product and use the code Birdchick13 when you check out.