Birding Around Homer, Alaska

There is never enough Alaska to be had. I loved exploring Homer so much, I'm already eyeing a tour offered by Zugunruhe Birding to Barrow next year. 

Semi-palmated plover seen along the Homer Spit. 

Semi-palmated plover seen along the Homer Spit. 

Alaska is one of those states you can't say no to when it comes a callin'. It's so far from the lower 48 states I was the speaker in 2016 for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and it was a place I immediately felt at home. One thing that struck me about the area was how much it reminded me of northern Minnesota if it had mountains. I met quite a few people who were originally from Minnesota and Wisconsin, came to Homer for work with the intent to stay for three years and yet found themselves in Homer going on 16 or more years. I could see myself doing that...not so sure about my city loving husband, but me? I'd for sure give Alaska a go. 

The state of Alaska is so huge, you  need more than one visit or the opportunity to live there to really get to know all of the different areas. It's beauty is overwhelming and the day length is unnerving. 

Everywhere you look in Alaska you see a Bob Ross painting. This is  Chugach National Forest , Moose Pass between Anchorage and Homer.

Everywhere you look in Alaska you see a Bob Ross painting. This is Chugach National Forest, Moose Pass between Anchorage and Homer.

My foot compared to a moose track. 

My foot compared to a moose track. 

I wondered how quickly I would see a moose on my drive from the Anchorage airport to Homer. I had to stop at a few scenic vistas on my way because I was not focusing on the road but the overwhelming beauty. Everywhere I stopped were signs of moose from tracks to poop. We have a small and dwindling population of moose up in Minnesota and I went on a moose safari in Sweden a few years ago so they aren't new for me but are always cool to see. I have a fairly distrust of moose on the side of the road ever since I saw the episode of Mythbusters that pretty much said you're boned if your vehicle collides with one. 

Moose blocking traffic in Homer.

Moose blocking traffic in Homer.

The closer I got to Homer, the more moose I saw: in the road, along the road, running along side my vehicle...which was quite nerve wracking. And signs like these didn't ease my mind. But I made it to Homer without incident and picked up a few lifers along the way. 

Mew gull...so weird to see a gull perched in a tree and also weird that I was able to id a gull on my own...

Mew gull...so weird to see a gull perched in a tree and also weird that I was able to id a gull on my own...

Golden-crowned sparrows sang all around my cabin. 

Golden-crowned sparrows sang all around my cabin. 

The light at 10pm in Homer in May...

The light at 10pm in Homer in May...

I checked into my cabin at Shadow Star Vacation Rental which was right on the bay and gave me views of scoters, sea otters and of course lots of bald eagles. Golden-crowned sparrows, sooty fox sparrows and hermit thrushes serenaded me as long as it was light out. Which was a bit of a problem for me. I tend to wake up with the light and the cabin had excellent light blocking curtains so when it was still dusk like at 11pm I'd have a shot at sleep. However, the hermit thrushes and sparrows kept going and my brain refuses to turn off when bird song is going, especially gorgeous songs from thrushes or birds I haven't heard before. But fortunately, Shadow Star offered the most comfortable bed I've ever slept on in my life and that combined with noise cancelling headphones playing white noise allowed me sleep. 

The Sourdough Joe breakfast at the  Fresh Sourdough Express . There's fresh reindeer sausage in there so I had to order it. 

The Sourdough Joe breakfast at the Fresh Sourdough Express. There's fresh reindeer sausage in there so I had to order it. 

After a good breakfast, I explored Homer and what it had to offer for birding, specifically along the spit. This area was infamous for years for the Homer Eagle Lady who fed chum to hundreds of bald eagles. Since she's passed away, Homer now has very strict rules about feeding birds along the spit. Apparently, there are some after effects of the feeding like black-legged kittiwakes now nesting under the piers so as to not have their nests predated by eagles. 

One of the piers where kittiwakes seek shelter from eagles. 

One of the piers where kittiwakes seek shelter from eagles. 

Black-legged Kittiwake up close. 

Black-legged Kittiwake up close. 

That's not to say a kittiwake colony doesn't attract attention. Here's an immature peregrine falcon and northwester crow near the kittiwakes. Eagles still abound as well. 

That's not to say a kittiwake colony doesn't attract attention. Here's an immature peregrine falcon and northwester crow near the kittiwakes. Eagles still abound as well. 

Obligatory bald eagle photo from Homer. They pretty much nest on anything that can find. You might be at risk if you stand in one spot for too long. 

Obligatory bald eagle photo from Homer. They pretty much nest on anything that can find. You might be at risk if you stand in one spot for too long. 

Black oystercatcher seen along the Homer Spit.

Black oystercatcher seen along the Homer Spit.

You may have noticed that I attended a festival with "shorebird" in the title and I've posted very few photos of shorebirds. I went in 2016 and the timing of the festival and shorebird migration didn't quite coincide. Such is the nature of migration and weather. Though I didn't get the big numbers of godwits, sandpipers and plovers, there are plenty of birds to keep you entertained and to fatten up your life list. 

Common murres against the sun taken from a boat.

Common murres against the sun taken from a boat.

One of the field trips you will want to make sure you get a space on is the seabird trip. It's only three hours but you can head out to a common murre colony and find eiders, common and Kittlitz's murrelts. It's also a gorgeous way to experience the Homer Spit view. If you're not sure how you would ever do on a pelagic, this small trip and a good way to test out your sea legs. You get quite a few opportunities for seabirds and shorebirds. 

Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island. Digiscoped from a boat. The iPhone is a very forgiving camera. 

Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island. Digiscoped from a boat. The iPhone is a very forgiving camera. 

I like the above video because it captures the frenetic activity of the birds and the adventurous air on a boat birding trip. Just walking around Homer can feel like an adventure, but the sights, the wind, the roar of the common murres and kittiwakes yelling overhead combined with the aroma assaulting smell of copious amounts of bird guano just adds to it. 

But that's just the birding around Homer. There are other places to explore in the next post. Also, be sure to check out the shenanigans my friends Sue and I got up to with our friend Flat Michelle. 

Experiments With Eagles

I went to the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska--which is a delightful festival, I highly recommend it. I met a ton of people who were originally from Minnesota and for one reason or another had moved to Alaska. I can see why, it's beautiful and great for people who enjoy the outdoors. Homer actually reminded me quite a bit of northern Minnesota--only with glaciers and mountains. 

I got a kick out of this sign--it reads "gulls" and not "seagulls."

I got a kick out of this sign--it reads "gulls" and not "seagulls."

As I was birding along Homer Spit, I saw the above sign and suddenly remembered this was where you used find Jean Keene the Eagle Lady (another former Minnesotan).  She lived along the spit and collected fish from various sources as well as roadkill moose to feed 200 - 300 bald eagles a day in the winter. That's a lot of bald eagles. Many enjoyed it--especially tourists and wildlife photographers (if you Google search "bald eagle flock" the first several photos are from the Eagle Lady feeding spot). Local hotel owners also appreciated a boom in business in winter. But some residents were not so thrilled to have eagles perched on their cars or homes and pooping all day. So the town of Homer has banned the feeding of predatory and scavenging birds, grandfathering her in so she could continue. But when she died, the eagle feeding stopped.

Me with Lynne Schoenborn, Sue Keator and Flat Michelle. 

Me with Lynne Schoenborn, Sue Keator and Flat Michelle. 

Two friends from Minnesota, Lynne and Sue came up to the fest and we got to spend some time together. Sue brought along a couple of photos of another friend named Michelle. I love Michelle, she takes photobombing to another level, knows lots about native plants and is always a good time at Birds and Beers...but there's one way we differ: she hates travel. She hates it so much she has said that her goal is to never have a passport. 

So we brought along her avatar in the form of Flat Michelle and began posting photos of her on Facebook. Michelle says it's her favorite form of travel. 

Flat Michelle kicking on back with an obliging sandhill crane in the background. 

Flat Michelle kicking on back with an obliging sandhill crane in the background. 

Here's Flat Michelle with an obligatory Alaska bald eagle photo. 

Here's Flat Michelle with an obligatory Alaska bald eagle photo. 

One of the places Lynne, Sue and I birded was Anchor Point--which is great for sea ducks, shorebirds and sparrows. There were a gazillion eagles and unlike Homer, people are allowed leave piles of unwanted fish on the beach. You could get quite close to the them, they really are used to people. I suggested that we put Flat Michelle in one of the fish piles and step away. We could then digiscope her with some bald eagles right next to her face. 

Flat Michelle posed with some halibut carcasses. 

Flat Michelle posed with some halibut carcasses. 

We had two different Flat Michelles. One kicking it with a beer bottle and one looking freaked out. We thought with a close proximity to eagles it would be funnier to start out with freaked out Michelle--you'd look freaked if an eagle was eating a dead fish next to your head, right? We placed it in front of a pile of fish that some eagles had been chowing on. We walked back, I set up my scope and we waited...

And waited...

And waited...

A bald eagle warily eyes Flat Michelle.

A bald eagle warily eyes Flat Michelle.

Eventually an eagle flew over, but it flared up when it saw Flat Michelle and circled a few more times. It landed nearby and just stared at her. A few more eagles flew in but like the first, just lingered along the periphery, occasionally squeaking in apparenty disapproval. The majestic eagles, all reluctant to land near the picture. Gulls and crows flew in but like the eagles, everyone kept their distance. 

The first to let down their guard were the northwestern crows. As soon as one got some food, the others flew in and gobbled up all the fish they could before the eagles and gulls moved in. 

A bald eagle walked behind Flat Michelle and the feasting crows. 

A bald eagle walked behind Flat Michelle and the feasting crows. 

Several more bald eagles flew over and around the fish pile, but none would get near it with Flat Michelle. I thought once the crows showed that it was safe the eagles would join, but they were having none of it. 

A glaucous-winged gull yells at Flat Michelle while a northwestern crow gets a morsel. 

A glaucous-winged gull yells at Flat Michelle while a northwestern crow gets a morsel. 

After awhile I thought it would be fun to get a time lapse video of Flat Michelle. Here it is:
 

Soon, another fisherman dumped a pile of halibut on the beach. And not just fish carcasses that have been filleted already but a few completely intact specimens. The eagles immediately flew over and completely ignored our mostly picked over fish pile. I suggested to Sue that we try that tastier pile and maybe use the beer version of Michelle. I wondered if her wide-eyed expression and both hands up was a threatening site to an eagle? So we placed the relaxed, chill beer drinking picture with the pile and stepped way back. 

The northwestern crows wasted no time in joining Flat Michelle. 

The northwestern crows wasted no time in joining Flat Michelle. 

The young glaucous-winged gulls were t he first to come sample the fish. After the adults watched to see that nothing bad happened to the young ones, they moved in. 

The young glaucous-winged gulls were t he first to come sample the fish. After the adults watched to see that nothing bad happened to the young ones, they moved in. 

Meanwhile, that was as close as a bald eagle dared to get to Flat Michelle.  

Meanwhile, that was as close as a bald eagle dared to get to Flat Michelle.  

Here's another time laps with the "beer Michelle."

We also made a movie trailer so Michelle could see the fun she had around Homer, Alaska. 

 

 

Tawas Point Bird Festival

Hey...does this website look different? Yep, we did a redesign. I hope it's easier for people to read. It's certainly going to be easier for me to maintain and enter content. 

The lighthouse at Tawas Point State Park.

The lighthouse at Tawas Point State Park.

I've run into Shelly Moses-Martinez at the Biggest Week in Ohio a few times. She also has started her own version of Birds and Beers in Michigan called Birds and Brews. She kept telling me that I needed to come to Tawas Point Bird Festival some year and we made it happen this year. 

Chestnut-sided warbler digiscoped with an iPhone at Tawas Point.

Chestnut-sided warbler digiscoped with an iPhone at Tawas Point.

This small festival was so much fun, it reminded me a lot of being in South Padre Island when the migrants come across the Gulf and warblers and tanagers are just everywhere. The only exception being that place was a bit cooler in temperature. Migrants tend to follow the shores of Lake Huron and many are low and easy to see. It's similar to the amount of warblers you can see at Biggest Week, but not as crowded. I had so many chestnut-sided warbles all around me.

A "slidey-backed gull seen in Tawas, MI.

A "slidey-backed gull seen in Tawas, MI.

The birding community is tight-knit and excited to show off this lovely lake town. I loved the gull themed slide near my hotel. You can stick around the point and bird the crap out of the area, but some of the field trips take you to some breath-taking Michigan habitat. One of the trips takes to see Kirtland's warbler, which if you don't have that species, this is the place for you.

View during the AuSuble field trip. 

View during the AuSuble field trip. 

Since I've already seen Kirtland's I opted for the AuSable River Valley field trip which was quiet, and yielded us lots of warblers. We were surrounded by pine trees and a lovely view from atop a bluff. Our guides was very good. He lives in Illinois but spends part of the year in Tawas. He even made a point to hang out with the back of the large group to make sure they were seeing and hearing some of the same birds. I have trouble telling some of my trilling bird species apart and he took the time to explain the differences between pine warbler and chipping sparrow. 

False morel aka "beefsteak" mushroom seen on our field trip.

False morel aka "beefsteak" mushroom seen on our field trip.

As some of you know, I like to forage for the occasional edible mushroom. I'm a big fan of the saying, "There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters." I pretty much stick to the "fool proof four" or the "safe six" like morels, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods--the things you cannot mistake for anything else. I know there are false morels and we found quite  few on our trip.  I can tell by the fatter, squatter appearance what a false morel is but I always double check when slicing morels because an edible morel will be hollow and a false more will be solid.

I overheard one of the participants talking about eating "the beefsteaks." "You eat that? I never eat false morels because they are supposed to be toxic."

She informed that she eats them all the time. I clearly had to do some googling. Apparently, some people can eat false morels without consequence, while others can experience diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, headaches and in rare cases even death. You never know, it's a crap shoot (ha ha). I don't see myself trying a false morel anytime soon but I did learn something new.

Porcupine found on the AuSable River Valley Trip.

Porcupine found on the AuSable River Valley Trip.

No matter what trips you sign up for, make sure to spend time walking the point. Even if you are doing it after all the afternoon workshops and you don't know your warblers well, lots of people will be there to help you id birds and even make sure that you are seeing the birds too.

Baltimore oriole digiscoped with an iPhone

Baltimore oriole digiscoped with an iPhone

Make sure to find the fruit feeding station and just zone out for a bit at all the crazy amounts of orioles chowing down on oranges. There are so many and the amount of orange and yellow is bananas.

Orchard oriole digiscoped with an iPhone while carbo loading on some hummingbird nectar.

Orchard oriole digiscoped with an iPhone while carbo loading on some hummingbird nectar.

It's a popular photography spot but if you are new to digiscoping this would be a great place to practice. 

One of many scarlet tanagers outside the festival hotel digiscoped with an iPhone.

One of many scarlet tanagers outside the festival hotel digiscoped with an iPhone.

The birds do drip off the trees. Even right outside the main hotel where all the field trips met, we had quite the warbler and tanager wave...and a group of about 20 birders with scopes watching them forage for insects on the budding trees. But the town seemed to welcome birders with quite a few posting signs welcoming birders and business would ask if you were having a good time if you were wearing binoculars. They may not understand exactly why you animatedly talking about the killer northern parula you just saw in their parking lot, but they are just happy you are enjoying the town.

What happens when a parent asks if their kid can have their photo with me...I just can't take a normal photo. 

What happens when a parent asks if their kid can have their photo with me...I just can't take a normal photo. 

Shelly was kind enough to host a Birds and Brews and that was a lot of fun. There were even kids (who had root beer). I love having these in other areas, it's an informal way to meet other people and get a pulse on the local birding community. I'm really excited because a lot of the people involved in organizing this small fun event are going to be involved with hosting the 2015 Midwest Birding Symposium. It's been fun in Ohio, but will be cool to try it in a new state.

One final note, I was surprised through some weird occurrence that I was able to get a direct flight from Minneapolis to Alpena which is less than an hour from Tawas Point. Who knew? But the airport was SO tiny. How tiny? Check this out: 

Alpena Airport Signage

Alpena Airport Signage

That's their baggage claim sign. You literally got off the plane and walked inside to this sign. To rent a car, you had to call for an attendant because he works the grounds of the airport. Which was fun and much more relaxed than the usual airport experience. 

And you never know what you'll find while you're driving around. Who knew I'd see a Jesus statue and dinosaur cutout so close together?

And you never know what you'll find while you're driving around. Who knew I'd see a Jesus statue and dinosaur cutout so close together?

The Canada Incident

So, I was supposed to be at the Point Pelee Festival of Birds this weekend, something I was really looking forward to doing--both as a presenter and field trip leader and as a birder to the area.  The warbler watching is legendary. But Canada refused me entry to their country. I've been to a lot of places.  I'm not as well traveled as some of my professional bird guide friends, but Kazakhstan, Israel, Guatemala--no problem. The country immediately north of the state I live in?  Easy, laid back Canada? They're the ones who have a problem with me? What the heck?

So here's the story. I'm not putting this in to make excuses for missing a festival, but I've had more than one person ask about my criminal record or if I had something naughty in my vehicle.  No, it was simply a clerical error.

Swarovski Optik is a sponsor of my blog and periodically, they will send me out to bird festivals to help demonstrate product--especially for digiscoping. They are also very generous when a bird festival has a small budget and would like to bring me in as a speaker and will sometimes help cover some of my costs. For Point Pelee, Swarovski paid my travel and lodging, while the festival paid my speaking fee. And let's be clear, I charge a livable wage, not David Allen Sibley rates.

When this was coming together, I asked if there was anything I needed to know about coming into Canada.  I asked several people, including my travel agent. Everyone felt there would be no problems with this.

My plan was to be at the Biggest Week in North American Birding and then drive up through Detroit into Canada and spend a weekend in Point Pelee National Park. The two areas are fairly close, so I spent Friday morning at the Biggest Week helping people get looks (and photos with their phones) of a hidden eastern whip-poor-will.

I took this with my iPhone through the scope, see it? If you don't see it right away, don't feel bad.  Taking this with my phone actually helped because I could show people this and point to exactly where they needed to look to see the whip-poor-will.  Most would exclaim, "Oh, wait, I thought that was the log."

Kudos to whoever found this bird in the first place, it was really hidden.  I just managed to get my scope on it so everyone could have a chance to view this little nightjar.  I had to chuckle while watching it. The last time I had a whip-poor-will encounter it was on skinny dipping trip that resulted in one of the worst reactions to poison ivy I've ever had in my life.  Remember that night, NBB?

As you can imagine, lots of people wanted to see a whip-poor-will and since it was so hard to find, it was times easier to line up behind my scope.

Bird guide, Erick Bruhnke got a photo of my solution to my claustrophobia on the Magee Marsh boardwalk when birders would crowd together: perching up on the railing.  I wanted everyone to have a chance at the whip but I also kept my eye on the time because I needed to head north to Canada.  Eventually, I got a friend to set his scope up in my place and I headed out to Canada with the knowledge that if traffic wasn't bad, I could do some lovely evening birding before leading a trip the next morning at 7am.

I got to the border and as I pulled my car up, the first customs agent had some questions:

Customs: Is this your first visit to Canada?

Me: Yes.

Customs: Why are you here?

Me: Bird watching.

Customs: Where?

Me: Point Pelee

Customs: Why there?

Me: There's a bird festival.

Customs: What will you be doing at the festival?

Me: Leading field trips and giving a photography workshop.

Customs: Is that what you do for a living?

Me: More or less.

Customs: Are you getting paid?

Me: Yes.

Customs: Who is paying you?

Me: The festival.

Customs: Since this is your first trip to Canada, please pull into the parking area and step inside.

Inside I had another customs agent question me more thoroughly and then she said, "You need a work visa, you have to go back to the US."

Perplexed, I asked what she was talking about and said, "Since you are getting paid to come here, you could be taking work away from a Canadain. The festival needs to get a work permit for you and prove that no one else in Canada can do what you do. What? You're a photographer? There could be a Canadian who could do that."

A combination of panic at missing a field trip and a little indignation I said, "I teach a very specific technique of taking photos of birds with an iPhone and a spotting scope."

In a very no nonsense tone she said, "Anybody could take a picture of a bird with an iPhone."

"Not the way I do it," I said, and my brain kicked in and said, "Back off, Shaz, don't cause a scene."

I asked if I could just pay the visa fee now...even though it was half my speaking fee and she said no, that it has to be applied for ahead of time.  I asked, "So, what if I don't get paid, what I refuse the fee?"

She said, "You've already stated that you're going to get paid, it's too late."

"What can I do so I can fulfill my duties at this festival tomorrow?"

She handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of uses numbers that the festival organizers could call to try and speed through a visa for me but since it was Friday night...no one was answering those phone lines.

Sarah Rupert tried very hard all weekend to get hold of someone but it just didn't happen. Poor thing had her own duties with the festival and had to take over my field trips and cancel my workshops.

I think if I had a reasonable customs agent, things could have gone a different way, but I had the no nonsense, no sense of humor agent and my Jedi mind tricks would not work on her.

As I related my tale via text and Facebook to friends as the situation was going down, people suggested alternate borders and trying to get in on Saturday.  Since I was questioned so thoroughly and they had a computer record, I really didn't want to risk any further trouble.

I ended up going back to Biggest Week but didn't enjoy it nearly as much because I felt like I was shirking my duties at Point Pelee.  This is the first time I've had this kind of utter failure with a festival.  I feel especially bad because I met so many people at Biggest Week who were coming to the digiscoping workshop in Point Pelee.  One woman said she had signed up for one at a different festival and when she arrived the organizers told her that the instructor just didn't show up.  I tried to explain that there may have been mitigating circumstances for the instructor like illness or family emergency.  She seemed dubious and said she looked forward to mine...wonder what she thought when I didn't show up on Sunday?

Again, I apologize for any inconvenience for people who showed up to the festival.  We're going to try and make it happen again in the future.

 

Woodcocks At Biggest Week

Part of the fun of birding at the Biggest Week is I get to see my friend Dale Forbes.  I met him a few years ago in Kazakhstan and since then he's moved on to working full time for Swarovski Optik as a products manager.  This is Dale's first time in North America...so you can imagine he's about to explode getting tons of colorful life birds. Jeff and Liz Gordon are also here pimping the American Birding Association and they tipped us off to some hot all woodcock action over at Maumee Bay State Park.  We hightailed it over there after one of my programs so Dale could get the full on woodcock lekking experience.

Before we started, we could hear an eastern screech-owl trilling outside their cabin. I of course had to experiment getting a shot of said owl with my iPhone.  Considering the only light was a flashlight, this wasn't too bad.

Dale got the full woodcock treatment.  The bird skydanced and timberdoodled several times.  He even landed so close at one point that there was no way for me to digiscope him--but what a thrill, we even heard the little crazy inhale sound before they explode out their peent.  Most of the time though he was in a position to not only get shots like the above with my iPhone and scope but also video:

http://youtu.be/vup4FGTGoAM

Jeff also got a video of the woodcock and the sound quality is much better, though he was using an actual camera with video and not an iPhone...it now kind of makes me want to investigate mics that are available for the iPhone.

Woodcocks are all over, one has been found foraging near the boardwalk and appears to have a nest hidden in the leaves.  Some of us have tried to scope her but she's so well hidden, almost all you see is that eye.

So it's not just all about the warblers here at Biggest Week.

 

 

Biggest Week In American Birding

So if you've been following my Twitter feed, you know I'm at something referred to as the Biggest Week, it's a big ole' honkin' bird festival in northern Ohio at Magee Marsh.  It bills itself as the "Warbler Capital Of The World."

I have seen quite a few warblers, but not enough yet to call it the warbler capital of the word...yet.  Warbling Vireo Capital Of The World is my current title for it--these dudes are all over the place.  That's one in the above photo.  I think the winds haven't been in our favor so far, so we're not getting the numbers of warblers dripping low off the trees that Ohio birders speak of with reverence, but I'm sure it's coming soon.

It's a cool festival though, there are warblers all around. The first bird I got when I stepped out of my rental vehicle was a chestnut-sided warbler (the bird above). It's not the best photo, I got that with my iPhone and spotting scope.  As a matter of fact, all of the photos in this post were done with my iPhone.  I thought I would challenge myself to only go out with my iPhone for a few days to see what I could do digiscoping wise if I left my SLR in my hotel room.  Some of the results are okay, but some have really surprised me.

Here's a yellow warbler, they're all over the Magee Marsh Boardwalk.

Here's my favorite warbler photo so far of a Cape May warbler and yes, I got this shot with my iPhone and Swarovksi spotting scope.  Am I ready to leave my SLR home for good?

I have to admit, I was worried this festival was going to overwhelm me.  You mostly bird watch from a boardwalk through Magee Marsh and with hundreds of people that can be some sardine birding. I think being short gives me a natural aversion to crowds--I can't see over tall people and I really don't like standing in a place where I cannot see an exit strategy.  The west side of the boardwalk is jam packed with birders--some people really enjoy that. Not me.

However, if you are like me and would like some space, the east side of the board walk is for you.  There will be some clusters of birders but you can still get past and there are a ton of bird because warblers move around.  So many birders from all over are here, it's fun to run into people I know only via Twitter or old friends from festivals past. The camaraderie is 50% of the fun.

Leftover Horicon Marsh Photos

Hey, remember in May when I went to Horicon Marsh?  It's funny, I've always been the sort of blogger who puts stuff up as she goes, never one with a backlog of material but as the Internet has changed to interacting with people via Facebook and Twitter, I don't blog as much and now I have a glut of back posts and photos.  Last week on one of my bird surveys, I found a yellow-throated vireo, then a Tennessee warbler and even a yellow-rumped...a pang hit me--an early mixed flock?  Fall warbler migration! Noooooo!  Perhaps it was the long, slow cold spring (I wore gloves in June) but it seems like it was only two weeks ago that I was watching warblers like the above American redstart pop in through new leaves.

Horicon Marsh is an awesome place.  And if you are looking for a great place to stay and relax when not birding, I highly recommend the Audubon Inn in nearby Mayville, WI.  It's a lovely old huge hotel in the theme of John James Audubon--even some of the windows in the hotel have his paintings etched in them.  The rooms are lovely, the floors full of cozy common areas with books, buy my absolute favorite part with the hotel bar--the food was excellent and it made for some great people watching. It was a great place to get to know the local townsfolk and fun to watch their interactions and it had Internet access.

Below are some of the birds that I managed to digiscope while out an about Horicon Marsh:

Palm warbler.

Yellow-rumped warbler.

Black-necked stilt (part of a pair).

Common moorehen.

Eared grebe.

Forster's tern.

Sandhill cranes...caught in the middle of the cloacal kiss.

Sandhill cranes trying to pretend that I didn't just catch them in the middle of something.

 

 

Cliff Swallow Nesting Area

If you ever have a chance to visit the great state of Utah, I highly recommend checking out Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  This place is awesome, there's an easy birding drive to take and you can use your car as a blind to get great looks at western birds.  You can also use the drive to get photos of grebes, ducks, pelicans and...

...swallows.

Lots and lots of swallows.  If you are birding in a place with all sorts of swallows aka birds who fly around with beaks wide open eating only insects, take note.  It usually means that there are a lot of insects for them to eat.

And lots of insects there are--mostly in the form of non biting midges.  This was  swarm that took over my rental car's windshield when I paused to get some photos. Most of the bugs you encounter are non biting...there are a few who do, but when you see clouds along the road, they are generally non biting midges.  Don't let this photo frighten you from visiting this place.  The midges for the most part will leave you alone and the birding is beautiful.  You can also stay in your car the entire time if you really want to avoid them, but I like to step out.

I had to chuckle, as I would try to get photos of birds around the refuge, midges kept getting in the shot.  All the black dots in the above photo of the marsh wren?  Midges!  Though there are oodles of midges and they can be a source of food for all sorts of insect eating birds, especially swallows, there is a challenge.  You can have all the food you want, but if you want to raise chicks, you need a safe place to do it.

This is the outside of the visitor center of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge--all of the birds in the photo are cliff swallows and they have built mud nests in every corner they can find since it's one of the few building around that offers shelter for their nests and safety from ground predators.

Here's a cliff swallow sitting on a partially completed nest. If you have kids and they give you any guff one day, just say, "Hey, at least I didn't make your bedroom out of mud and my own saliva.  How'd you like to grow up in that?"  The nests are jammed packed but there's still plenty of insects to allow for more nesting.

Then I found this little structure near the auto tour.  I'm not sure if this originally was meant as a shelter for people and taken over by swallows or if this was built specifically for them.  Either way, what a cool idea to build a shelter for cliff swallows to use.  If I had a cabin on a lake, I'd totally make one for these insect eating birds.  Might even discourage them from nesting around light fixtures or other areas you'd rather not have them nesting on.

It was hypnotic to watch the little cliff swallows come and go from the little mud cups.  These are highly social bird and have no problem nesting side by side...so long as there is plenty of food.

As I went around the refuge, I would find muddy patches with packs of swallows gathering mud for nest construction.  Some birds, like those in the lower left hand corner got so into the spirit of things, they mated right there.

It cracks me up to watch cliff swallows on the ground when they gather mud.  They keep their wings up in the air.  It's almost as if it's a reminder that they don't normally perch on the ground and they need to be back in the air stat.  Although, I wonder if the behavior evolved to prevent them from getting mud on the tips of their long wings?

Even though this was in Utah, cliff swallows are all over the United States, so if you wanted to experiment with making a cliff swallow nesting shelter, you could give it a go.  I don't think they are in particular trouble habitat wise, so it's not like you need to do it like purple martins, but if you enjoy them, I'm sure they'd appreciate it.  We have quite a few it the Twin Cities.  When we do canoe paddles on the river, just about every bridge is loaded with cliff swallow nests.  They look different from barn swallows, they don't have the deeply forked tail and they have that blond unibrow look to their face.

Cute little swallows.

 

Horicon Marsh Bird Festival Warblers & Songbirds

I did a bunch of traveling in May and haven't really had a chance to sit and breathe and really focus on the wonderful birding to be had.  It started with the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival in Wisconsin.  This is a smaller festival and forgoes some of the traditional things like name badges and packets for participants. It doesn't matter, this festival is run by local bird club and they truly love this marsh and know you will love it too.

Here's the view from the driveway to the visitor center of this vast wetland--you can't help but feel your birdy senses tingling when you approach that view. You can enjoy the marsh via car, hiking and canoe, but I spent most of my three days along Dike Rd which offered excellent views and digiscoping opportunities and the birds seemed to change by the hour during migration.  What you got at 10am may not be what you would get 2 hours later.

Since this area was a bit further south of me, I was able to run into migrants that had not reached the Twin Cities yet like the above rose-breasted grosbeak.  This was one of my last morning of birding, we were walking along Northern Road--a great place for spring warblers a little patch of trees among near the marsh.

Here's a very cooperative black-and-white warbler we found during our field trips.  If you've never seen one of these, they are a weird little warbler.  It has the warbler shape, but it's colored like a female downy woodpecker and creeps on the trunks of trees like a nuthatch or brown creeper.  What it lacks in color, it makes up for in interesting character.  We had a great warbler time until we found the following vexing warbler on Dike Road:

Ugh, I would expect this sort of dull warbler in the fall, but the spring??  We consulted several guides trying to figure this out and went into my default mode of digiscoping as many shots as I could to consult field guides later.  There was a male Cape May warbler nearby and I wondered if this was a first year female who had not gone into her breeding plumage yet.

I posted it on my Facebook wall and many more knowledgeable folks than I dull looking warblers said, "Pine warbler!" Even Kenn Kaufman said, "Incidentally, on p. 418 of my new KFG to Advanced Birding, there's an illustration of a bird very much like the one in your photo."  It's so handy having access to such knowledgeable folks on Facebook.  That new edition of Kenn's book is a very handy guide for someone who feels good about their yard birds and is ready to graduate to learning the difference between shorebirds, warblers, gulls and flycatchers.

Since the leaves weren't quite on the trees yet, it made finding the blindingly red scarlet tanager less of a challenge.  I love these birds and since I have such a great Swarovski Spotting Scope, I love to give people a chance to see this bird.  There was one woman who was hanging around in back and she tried looking through the scope but didn't see the bird.  As some of our group was moving along with another field trip leader, I made it my mission to get it for her.  I can tell when someone actually sees a bird in the scope and when someone tries to politely fake it (they don't want to be a burden to the rest of the group) but I told her to stick to me like glue and as soon as I left my eyepiece to get in there.  When I got the tanager in again, I should "Move, move, move," like a football coach, she jockeyed into position, there was a pause and then an unadulterated, "OH!"

I knew she had it then.  That's one of the things I really enjoy on field trips is hanging with the people who have trouble with a bird, even one that might be common for most and giving them a really good look.

More on Horicon later.