Wednesday 29 June 2011

Skimmers at Bolsa Chica, Los Angeles, LAX

This evening’s outing was directed specifically at watching the Black Skimmers feeding on the lagoon at Bolsa Chica, Orange County. Earlier posts describe long bus journeys for what is a simple 20 minute drive south from Long Beach. From my previous experiences, I had discovered that skimmers are more active and more likely to be seen ‘skimming’ later in the day.

They drop their enlarged lower mandible into the water as they fly along and fish by sense of touch which is just as easy to do in low light levels and even in the dark. My only concern would be crashing into man-made obstacles such as the boardwalk that stretches across their fishing lanes. Just a thought, skimmers completely submerge the black section of the lower mandible. Is the bill-tip black to conceal it from prey in the water and does the bird use it as a Plimsoll-line to guage how far to lower it in?

On the tern breeding island in the distance, to the south of the boardwalk, they appeared as large black birds with red bills. Only when they fly do the white underside and the long black bill-tip become visible.

I had arrived earlier than expected and still had a couple of hours until dusk. A group of big cameras were gathered further up at the inlet from the northern lagoon and were probably taking pictures of the terns fishing in the current there. I considered going up to join them for a while before the skimmers started, but was sidetracked by a Peregrine Falcon flying over and moments later the tern colony exploded.

Perhaps there was more than one falcon, or perhaps it was unsuccessful, anyhow, a short while later the Willets behind me flew up and were chased across the upper lobe. The terns rose spectacularly again several more times, so I didn’t feel that I was missing out on the fishing terns. Each time the colony rose, the skimmers would rise too and fly languidly around, occasionally passing the boardwalk and circling around before settling down again. The light was beautiful and in a perfect direction. I hoped that the light breeze that ruffled the water’s surface would give the birds extra lift, enabling them to fly slightly slower as they came towards me. All was set very fair.

Elegant terns flew in synchronised pairs, screeching. Forster’s Terns flew back and forth carrying fish. A few young ones were already providing for themselves.

Some Black Skimmers had already ventured past the boardwalk, but at around 45 minutes before dusk they began to move in greater numbers. They did not seem anxious to start feeding and for the most part cruised by and up towards the inlet.

Perhaps the cameras had been able to predict that a rising tide would attract them to the current as it passes through the pipe. It would have made a good vantage point with the light behind and the birds approaching straight up the lagoon, pulling out at the last moment and arcing round for another run (but that is merely fanciful speculation as I did not go up to join them).

Back at the boardwalk, I had been joined by Mark, another photographer and the skimmers were giving some nice fly-bys, making us duck with their close passes, but there was very little skimming going on. Just the same, it was a glorious evening, if a little chilly in the wind.

Other birds that put in an appearance included a very accomodating Great Egret that flew to and fro a couple of times for our photographic pleasure and big numbers of Brown Pelican that had found a roost beyond the boardwalk, sheltered from the wind.
Find the boardwalk at Google Earth ref; 33 41' 46"N 118 02' 45"W

Birds seen; 16

Brown Pelican 300, Double-crested Cormorant 20, Great Egret 1, Reddish Egret 1, Black-crowned Night Heron 1, Peregrine Falcon 1, Black-necked Stilt 1, Willet 25, California Gull 4, Western Gull 150, Caspian Tern 25, Elegant Tern 150, Forster’s Tern 60, Black Skimmer 60, Mourning Dove 3, Savannah Sparrow 3.

The numbers shown above cannot reflect the amount of terns in the breeding colony, only those flying past the boardwalk. When the colony rose under threat from the Peregrine there were thousands of birds in the air and counting them would be for someone more diligent than I am.

Follow the links below for other posts from Bolsa Chica and Los Angeles;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from the region.

Skimmers at Bolsa Chica, Los Angeles, LAX

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Crandon Park, Key Biscayne, Miami, MIA

I am feeling even more stupid than usual today. Having braved thunder, lightning, biting insects and crocodiles in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, I proceeded to inadvertently delete all the photographs on my return home. The whole set went “ whoosh” into the deepest recesses of digital space at the click of a button. This sort of thing never used to happen with slides.
If this has ever happened to you, there is a solution (well partly at least). Programs exist to retrieve erased data from discs and cards. The one I used was from a software house called The upshot was that I was able to salvage a few of my hard won snaps. Thanks to Joshua 14321 on the Canon Forum for the advice.

I knew that I would get wet, it was merely a question of depth. Miami in June tends towards heavy rain and thunderstorms. A sharp shower hit the bus as we crossed the Rickenbacker Causeway on to Key Biscayne, but cleared up before I had to step out. It wasn’t long before the clouds built up and storms began to threaten again. The few cyclists and joggers quickly disappeared with the first roll of thunder and I headed for shelter under the cover of a concrete shade by the roller-skating rink.
The flashes and crashes came almost simultaneously as the storm raged, blew the lights and made my hair (note singular) stand on end. Numerous small flocks of White Ibis didn’t seem to mind and sucked up the drips before they fell from their beaks. Some seemed to positively revel in the rain.

Stuck under cover with nothing else to see, I watched the ibis for some time, noting a few oddities that I had not seen before. There was quite a distinct difference in size between individuals. And I later learned that the males average 15% bigger than the females. I have yet to explain the grey/brown staining on some that gave them the colour of antique underwear.

When the rain eventually stopped, I made my way into Cranford Park Garden. An exotic collection of Egyptian Goose, Common Peafowl and Guineafowl meant that any really exciting rarities would have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the Sandhill Crane was probably close enough to the resident Florida population to count (although I am not sure of the original provenance of the birds from the Sunshine State).

The gardens feature a meandering tarmac road that takes the visitor round a palm-filled enclosure of lawns and lakes (It may once have been a small zoo(?)). Warnings of Crocodiles put me off getting too close to the water’s edge to look for damselflies, but their larger relatives were easy enough to see and could be photographed with the long lens.

Some were recognisable, but this one was new. I believe it is a 4-spotted Pennant Brachymesia gravida

Great Egret and Tricoloured Heron were seen along the banks and Anhinga fished in the deeper water or dried themselves on the bank, but the bulk of the biomass was split between large lizards and biting insects. I had been very liberal with the mosquito repellent on all exposed skin, but that didn’t stop the little biters going straight through my shirt. The lizards took many forms with at least two species having the talent to ‘walk on water.’

Crandon Park looks inviting on maps and leaflets with the whole area coloured green, but the truth of the matter is that it is mostly car parking hard surface or private club. Google Earth gives a more faithful representation at ref; 25 42’ 21”N 80 09’ 28”W. These coordinates also correspond to the pedestrian entrance of Crandon Park Gardens. Opening times are advertised as 08.00 onwards, but the pedestrian entrance did not have a gate and allows entrance at any time.
There are said to be crocodiles present and this one made me stop in my tracks as I rounded a corner. It took a couple of looks.

Crandon Park is shown as an extensive area of Key Biscayne, but only the side to the east of Route 903 is accessible as a birding option (to the west is the golf course and Tennis Center). The northern part is Bear Cut Preserve, which looks like the best choice for wildlife, but it has no shelter beyond the nature Centre, so I am saving that for another time when the weather is more amenable. The park’s most famous feature is its beach, which I did not visit. A bird list for the park shows that a good crop of waders and gulls could probably be found there. The extensive provision for parking makes me think that it must get very busy at holiday time and weekends.

Take the Metromover monorail to Brickell. Buses 102 or B cross the Rickenbacker causeway and continue onto Key Biscayne. Crandon Park is on the left as the bus travels south. Bear Cut Preserve and the Nature Center is the first stop after the second bridge. Crandon Park Gardens is at the southern end just before the town.

Species seen; 17

Brown Pelican 1, Double-crested Cormorant 3, Anhinga 2, Great Egret 1, Tricoloured Heron 1, Snowy Egret 3, White Ibis 300, Black Vulture 3, Sandhill Crane 1, Common Moorhen 2, Eurasian Collared Dove 8, Mourning Dove 4, Red-bellied Woodpecker 4, Northern Mockingbird 2, Fish Crow 6, Northern Cardinal 1, Boat-tailed Grackle 3.

Back in Miami, I took a little walk along the river and found what I suspect to be a Barracuda.

For other posts about trips to Miami follow the links below:

For other trip reports from the USA and Canada, go to the dedicated page.

Crandon Park, Key Biscayne, Miami, MIA

Monday 20 June 2011

Hotel Golf Course, Phoenix, PHX

Beside our hotel in Phoenix is a small golf course that has produced Gopher Snakes, Black-tailed Jackrabits and Great Horned Owl in the past. I asked for permission at reception and went out to brave the hazards and high handicappers.

None of the creatures featured above were seen, but there were a couple of species that boosted my Phoenix trip list to 60+. There are plenty of large trees here though many of them are alien gums. A Canada Goose watched over its brood in the shade of a big eucalyptus and a Blue Dasher took the obelisk position on a stalk of grass by the lake.

As I came around the raised bank a movement caught my eye as an Osprey launched itself from a stout branch. It is amazing how much stuff can pass through your mind in an instant. Having recognised it as an Osprey, it flashed into my head that it might be about to swoop down onto the water and pick out a fish. I dropped everything except the camera and threw myself to the ground hoping to get a low angle on that classic Osprey picture. I recall wondering whether Ospreys ate carp (which was the fish that I had seen in the lake) or if they discriminated between species. Did it have a chick nearby to feed? Other strange stuff occurred to me during the split second that the bird took to complete its downward trajectory before beginning to gain height for its climb.

Two golfers watched, bemused, from the tee across the lake as I picked myself up, cursing a proturding sprinkler head. Ospreys are obviously too common a sight to excite interest here, but birders making a dash across the course and sprawling into the damp patch from a recent watering make for good watching.
A Say's Phoebe was the penultimate bird with the PHX trip list rounded out at 67 by a Black-necked Stilt in the storm drain.

Birds seen; 12

Double-crested Cormorant 1, Green Heron 1, Canada Goose 6, Mallard 3, Osprey 1, Mourning Dove 16, White-winged Dove 18, Common Ground Dove 2, Black-chinned Hummingbird 6, Say's Phoebe 1, Northern Mockingbird 2, Great-tailed Grackle 20.

Golf course, Phoenix, PHX

Sunday 19 June 2011

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, PHX

50 acres of cactus and mesquite brush would be a reasonable description of the Desert Botanical Garden, but would undersell it terribly. It is a beautifully laid out garden with art features, special exhibits and very photogenic birds.

The receptionist, who took my $15 entrance fee, noted my binoculars and offered me a bird list which gives status and incidence of over 100 species that frequent the gardens. I had already found a few in the car park, adding Verdin and Cactus Wren to my trip list.

A cactus patch just inside the main entrance gate held my attention for a while. A White-winged Pigeon sat at the top of a Saguara cactus feeding from the pulp of the flowers, while families of Gambel’s Quail were a little shy and stayed in the shadows. The females were far more inclined to stand for a picture than the males.

A few local photographers were already taking pictures and one told me that Lesser Nighthawks could been seen during the morning at a point on the western extreme of the gardens and I headed out in that direction along the Plants and People trail. At the trailhead a Greater Roadrunner came out onto the path ahead of me and looked up hungrily at a Mourning Dove’s nest which held two chicks.

The tops of the cacti were blooming with fleshy red flowers which the birds love to eat. At the top of almost every flowering cactus was either, a Cactus Wren, a Gila Woodpecker, a House Finch, or a Curve-billed Thrasher.

White-winged Doves were especially common and the pulp of the flowers covered their faces as if it were lunch-time at nursery school.

Along the trail is a small pond which held a few dragonflies and I succumbed for while to the odonata. This one is a Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata.

There appeared to be a pecking order that was decided by size and aggression. The White-winged Dove took top slot by virtue of its greater bulk. The aggression of the Gila Woodpecker was too much for the Cactus Wren and the House Finch seldom got a moment to relax.

I reached the point where the nighthawks might be seen and stopped there for a while with no success. Four American Kestrels kept me watching as they mobbed a Turkey Vulture that had strayed into their airspace. Other birds seen along the trail included Northern Flicker and Abert’s Towhee and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Some reptiles that I think are the Horned Lizard were quite common. A couple told me that they had seen a snake, so I high-tailed it back to the spot that they indicated on the map, but it had moved on.

Next I tried the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail. This is a quarter of a mile of cacti that climbs gently to a small pagoda that affords a great view of more birds on top of more cacti. It is raised a few feet above the surroundings and allows a much better angle for pictures.

The gardens and the nearby zoo are part of Papago Park. This is a public area of mesquite scrub and cactus, but not half as nicely laid out as the gardens, but access can be had at any time. There are 3 lakes here however and if I ever go back, this will be one of the first places that I visit. It could also serve as an early-morning starter before the gardens open at 07.00, a late evening sundowner, or a cheap alternative to the $15 entry. It would probably be a very inferior choice if the gardens are open.

Find Papago Park and the Botanical Gardens at N. Galvin Parkway (Google Earth ref; 33 27’ 35”N 111 56’ 57”W ). From Route 202 come off at N. Center Parkway. Continue straight as if about to rejoin the freeway. Turn north, right, at N. Priest, which becomes N. Galvin Parkway after 1.5 kms. 1km further is a roundabout and the gardens are signposted to the right. Signs to the zoo earlier will give public access to Papago Park by keeping left.

Birds seen; 23

Green Heron 1, Mallard 3, Turkey Vulture 2, American Kestrel 4, Gambel’s Quail 20, Mourning Dove 30, White-winged Dove 150, Inca Dove 2, Greater Roadrunner 1, Black-chinned Hummingbird 15, Anna’s Hummingbird 1, Gila Woodpecker 20, Northern Flicker 2, Brown-crested Flycatcher 1, Cactus Wren 15, Curve-billed Thrasher 15, Verdin 25, Common Starling 2, House Sparrow 20, House Finch 40, Lesser Goldfinch 2o, Abert’s Towhee 4, Northern Cardinal 3.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, PHX

Saturday 18 June 2011

Arizona ablaze. A day in the mountains goes flat. Phoenix, PHX.

The beautiful, clear blue skies and picture perfect mountainscape of the Huachuca Mountains belied the guard’s grim news of the “wall of fire.” I later realised that I had misheard and he was referring to the ‘Wallow Fire’ which was raging across Arizona County to the north-east of us and had burned 600 square miles in the state's worst ever wildfire. In a very military style, he also failed to answer the question that I did not ask.

I had been refused entry to Fort Huachuca on the grounds of extreme fire risk, with spots already burning in the mountains. I glanced over his shoulder at the pristine scene behind him and felt cheated. The information that he did not volunteer and which none of the guide books mentioned was that as a non-US citizen, I would not have been allowed unsupervised entry anyway.

Red-tailed Hawk

The approach to Ramsay Canyon, a few miles down the road was also barred and I subsequently discovered that the entire Coronado National Forest had been closed to guard the tinderboxes against fire. It seemed incongruous then to see a man selling fireworks at his street-side stall.

I needed to salvage the day and pulled in to consider my position. I was lucky enough that a covey of Scaled Quail called this hard shoulder home. San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is within 10 miles of the military base’s main gate, so San Pedro House (on the 90, between Sierra Vista and Bisbee) became my focus. Huge success has been had from conservation efforts here though water extraction for people and farming still threaten to suck the river dry.

The birds were immediately obvious as I pulled up in the car. Feeders in front of the house attracted Blue Grosbeak, White-winged Dove, Gambel’s Quail and House Finch. A Grey Hawk and a Swainson’s Hawk fought for air superiority in the sky above.

Gila woodpeckers bullied Black-chinned Hummingbirds for a place at the sugar water feeders.

Across a very dry meadow is the San Pedro River which was barely more than a trickle today. Song Sparrows crept along the water’s edge collecting food and Yellow-breasted Chats called from the trees. Vermillion Flycatchers were common with a bright red male feeding two fledglings.

Myarchus flycatchers were fairly common in the cottonwoods along the bank. Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers were reported for the day on a sightings board at the house, but I could only be sure of the Brown-crested Flycatcher. The harsh light of the Arizona sun washed the colour out of the birds and the subtle difference in the strength of yellow shading was not reliable. I had to make my selection based on size of bill.

An Empidonax flycatcher defeated me. It was a toss-up between a Pacific Slope Flycatcher and a Cordilleran Flycatcher. A gut reaction made me think Cordilleran, but Pacific Slope was reported on the sightings board. It made no sound to give me a clue one way or the other.

Green Kingfishers are said to inhabit the lake downstream of the house. I was not able to see one today, but made up for that dip by finding a Yellow-billed Cuckoo which allowed me a good clear look. Western Kingbirds, Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Barn Swallows were also seen around the lake.

The wind was picking up now and it brought with it a waft of wood-smoke. I looked across towards the mountains to see a large plume rising into the air and had to retract my earlier unkind thoughts about the guard at the gate to the fort.

Back at San Pedro House, I stopped a while for some cold drinks and a chat to seek some information from Dwight and Chris Long, volunteers at the conservancy. Dwight told me about the Desert Grassland Whiptail that I had been seeing a lot of. The lizards’ population is entirely female and they are able to lay fertile eggs without having to bother with male interaction, although pseudosexual mounting improves their reproductive success. Chris provided me with an address to arrange a guide to accompany me into Fort Hauchuca for next time

With all the Coronado National Forest sites closed, the Arizona afternoon stretched ahead of me, hot and flat. All the canyons were barred, so I was limited to the lowlands. The route to Patagonia would be a ridiculous detour, but I am nothing if not ridiculous, so I passed back through Sierra Vista and took Route 82, west through the grasslands to Patagonia.

The fence lines along the way gave some pathetic shade to Grasshopper Sparrows as the mercury topped 100C. Pronghorn Antelope out on the Sonoita grassland could gain no such relief and had to soak up the full power of the sun.

When in Patagonia, visit Wally and Marion Paton’s home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sugar water is put out to attract hummingbirds while seed feeders bring in other species. A shade and seating are provided and all are welcome. Please leave a donation in the box provided to help cover the cost of the sugar and feed.

Broad-billed, Black-chinned and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds frequented the sugar water feeders while I watched. The seed feeders were used by Lesser Goldfinches, Blue Grosbeaks and Brown-headed Cowbirds. On the ground, White-winged Doves and Abert’s Towhees fed from loose scattered feed.

A report in the recent sightings book mentioned a Streak-backed Oriole at a feeder in a private address near Lake Patagonia. I stopped outside the house where the oriole was said to frequent the orange feeder. An oriole was feeding as I arrived, but this bird was a Hooded Oriole. The Streak-backed Oriole didn’t show and I moved on to Madera Canyon.

Madera Canyon was closed from the Proctor Road Parking Area. Nevertheless, Black-throated Sparrows were seen on the fence and Common Ravens refused to become Chihuahua Ravens no matter how much I stared at them. Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains is such a gorgeous place and holds such wonderful birds that I considered ignoring the traffic cones that barred my way. Elegant Trogon and Elf Owl would almost certainly be seen a mile up the road, but I was too much of a wimp to chance it. Still, I was able to settle for watching the Black-tailed Deer crossing the meadow and the moon rising through the trees on the upper slopes.

I set the alarm for 02.30 to get to Fort Huachuca when the main gate opened at 05.30. If I had consulted this website, I would have been warned that the forests and mountains were closed and could have stayed in bed and found somewhere nearer to Phoenix for the day. But then I wouldn't have found 3 lifers for the day. 
The list below is a cumulative one for the whole day including those seen while driving.

Birds seen; 53

Mallard 3, Turkey Vulture 8, Grey Hawk 2, Swainson’s Hawk 3, Red-tailed Hawk 3, Scaled Quail 15, Gambel’s Quail 9, Mourning Dove 4,White-winged Dove 18, Common Ground Dove 1, Yellow-billed Cuckoo 1, Lesser Nighthawk 6, Broad-billed Hummingbird 8, Violet-crowned Hummingbird 2, Magnificent Hummingbird 1, Black-chinned Hummingbird 14, Acorn Woodpecker 2, Gila Woodpecker 15, Ladder-backed Woodpecker 2, Northern Flicker 1, Vermillion Flycatcher 12, Western Kingbird 2, Brown-crested Flycatcher 6, Northern Rough-winged Swallow 3, Barn Swallow 4, Phainopepla 12, Bewick’s Wren 4, Northern Mockingbird 2, Curve-billed Thrasher 4, White-breasted Nuthatch 2, Mexican Jay 12, Common Raven 15, House Sparrow 4, Bell’s Vireo 1, House Finch 60, Lesser Goldfinch 40, Lucy’s Warbler 1, Yellow Warbler 3, American Redstart 1, Common Yellowthroat 6, Yellow-breasted Chat 8, Summer Tanager 7, Western Tanager 1, Canyon Towhee 1, Abert’s Towhee 14, Black-throated Sparrow 3, Rufous-crowned Sparrow 1, Grasshopper Sparrow 3, Song Sparrow 10, Blue Grosbeak 14, Brown-headed Cowbird 10, Bullock’s Oriole 1, Hooded Oriole 1.

Phoenix, PHX, Fort Huachuca, Madera Canyon, Patagonia, Wally and Marion Paton's Home,

Thursday 16 June 2011

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Phoenix, PHX,

From the airport at Phoenix, it is necessary to hop onto the car rentals bus which takes you to the Car Rental Centre where all the main brands are represented. Alamo was my company of choice today and soon my Toyota had taken me to Usery Mountain Regional Park. Pass Mesa on Route 60 travelling east. About 19 kms beyond Alma School Rd, turn north onto the 202. Leave Route 202 after 4kms at E University Drive, turn right over the freeway then left, north, onto North Ellsworth Rd for a further 6.6 kms, where the entrance is signposted on the right. (Google Earth ref; 33 28’ 56”N 111 37’ 24”W).

This is a typical tract of Lower Sonoran Desert habitat and many of the Phoenix specials can be found here without the need to travel down to the Saguaro National Park near Tucson. For a map showing roads, hiking trails and relief, follow this link.
I had a very short time before the sun went down and the light, though beautiful, did not lend itself to bird photography, so I mucked about with cacti, sunsets and the moon instead.

Birds seen; 8

American Kestrel 1, Gambel’s Quail 6, Mourning Dove 15, White-winged Dove 4, Lesser Nighthawk 15, Gila Woodpecker 5, Northern Flicker 1, Curve-billed Thrasher 3.

When returning to the Car Rental Centre, stay on Route 10 to Junction 149. Leave at least half an hour ahead of pick up time to return the car and get the bus back to the airport.

For other Phoenix posts follow the following link;

For other posts for USA and Canada go to the dedicated page
Phoenix, PHX, Usery Mountain Regional Park,

Tuesday 14 June 2011

High Resolution Images from May 2011

 High Resolution Images from May 2011

The images in the main blog have been reduced in size to 600 pixels or less across to facilitate quick loading. It goes against all my sensibilities to reduce the resolution, so each month I shall select a few shots that warrant being seen in in hi-res.
These posts may take slightly longer to load, so please be patient.

The links will take you to the original post.

I got it into my head that this Great Crested Grebe had the look of Keira Knightly. Anyone? It was fishing in the current  of the River Len as it flows into the lake at Mote Park.

This Saffron Finch was seen in beautiful early morning light outside Ribera Norte to the north of Buenos Aires.

A frazzled parent bird was trying to keep at least three, maybe even 4 fledglings fed at Kadoorie Farm in Hong Kong.

Other galleries can be found at the dedicated High Resolution page.