1.10.10

Back from SOUTH AFRICA!

My apologies for the long hiatus from posts... I have been guiding in South Africa and just back for a week. I plan on doing a whole bunch of follow up posts from the trip but here are a few images from early in the trip that I managed to process while on the road.


This is an AFRICAN BROADBILL. It is a real tough bird to see and we lucked onto it while on the Fig Forest walk at Mkuze Reserve (with an armed ranger). Normally the only way to find it is during the breeding season when the males do a bizarre predawn display. Even then its very tough to track down and views are not great so this was really serendipity! Sorry Chris - I know this is one you have searched for, for a long time.


I know its a little brown job... BUT South Africa is well known for being a center for endemism (unique species) and no family better represents that specialization than the LARK family. We saw over twenty lark species on our trip (a superb tally) and many of them are darn hard to see well. This is one species I never expected to photograph. Its a CAPE CLAPPER LARK. This species is notorious for being heard or seen in flight as it displays, but rarely seen on the ground. This obliging individual sunned itself on a fencepost on a chilly morning.



Okay so now we are on to a real showy bird! This is a GRAY-HEADED BUSHSHRIKE. It is about the size of a blue jay. That massive beak is used to dispatch lizards, frogs, invertebrates and even baby birds. We saw all six bushshrikes in South Africa and never tired of any of them!



One of the great things about Africa is night drives. You see many neat mammals you wont see during the day, and some great birds as well. This SPOTTED EAGLE OWL is a widespread owl found throughout southern Africa. This one perched right beside us for nearly five minutes!

This is just a taste of some of the highlights of this trip. Lots more to come next week.

22.7.10

JULY 18th - FRIGATEBIRD - ANCHOR BAY, MI

Kathi and I were enjoying a quiet Sunday evening when she got a text from Martin Blagdurn - "FRIGATEBIRD - ON ANCHOR BAY NOW". A quick phone call to Martin to confirm the bird was still in view, and we were on our way towards the north shore of the bay. It was a frantic ten minutes while we called back and forth to Martin to find out where the bird was headed. As we drove east, Kathi spotted the bird gliding overhead. There was Martin right beside it, as we arrived at BobbyMacs bayside grill. We spent about twenty minutes following it back and forth over an area of only a few hundred yards. In that entire time I don't recall seeing it flap once! It soared effortlessly in the onshore breeze, staying just above the tree tops - and likely looking for a place to roost. By the time we saw the bird it was around 9 pm so photography was difficult. However I did manage to get a few diagnostic shots. This was a Michigan first for all of us, and many thanks to Martin for the prompt notification!


JULY 4th - fireworks on the beach

To celebrate the holidays, Kathi, Carina,her girlfriend Sam and I went to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. One of the highlights of the trip was sitting on the beach watching the incredible display of fireworks. It was hard to know where to look! The displays went on for hours and stretched for miles down the beach in both directions. It took a while to get the exposure correct but after playing in manual for a while I got the hang of it.



Sometimes experimentation brings some great results. In this case I was having trouble with auto focus so I moved to manual. While I was trying to get the right focal range I cranked this out of focus shot by mistake.






20.6.10

ALB ERTA - AMAZING AVOCETS



Today we encountered a small pond with baby AVOCETS! The parents put on an amazing display flying about us and doing the broken wing act just like KILLDEER. They were incredibly aggressive in defense of their babies. We could only see one little one but no doubt there were a number in the grass nearby. Just one more thing that makes that this trip a true spectacle!






The Arctic bound shorebirds have now departed for their breeding sites. However, the combination of prairies and boreal makes seeing no fewer than FOURTEEN breeding shorebirds a good possibility.

ALBERTA - govenlock hilites



Just a catch up post on the first groups day in Govenlock in southwest Saskatchewan. I was surprised we had not run into GREAT HORNED OWL on this trip, and on our final full day we lucked upon two adults and these two babies. They were sitting within fifty feet of the main highway near Consul.



One of the critters I really wanted to see down here was SWIFT FOX. We asked several locals in Consul at the hotel where we might find one. They suggested down near the Govenlock intersection. Incredibly as we arrived at that intersection there was a SWIFT FOX crossing the road with a RICHARDSONS GROUND SQUIRREL in its mouth!!!! We followed the fox for about five minutes as it attracted the attention of hundreds of ground squirrels screaming from their burrows!.




19.6.10

ALBERTA - more great mammals


One of the main targets of our mountain extension was to see bears. We managed to get great views of 6 BLACK BEARS including a mother with two cubs. But everyone wanted to see a GRIZZLY BEAR. On our second last afternoon we came across a beautiful blond GRIZZLY working a hillside across a creek. We had good binocular views and spectacular scope views for at least twenty minutes. Here is a digiscoped picture of the GRIZZLY.



Compare the colour of this bear to the dark GRIZZLY that Paul and I had seen about a week earlier on the same stretch of Banff National Park.


The good luck with mammals continued as we started our second boreal and prairie adventure. We added RED FOX and heard TIMBER WOLVES at close range near Cold Lake. In addition we have encountered dozens of COYOTES over the last several weeks. This one was one of the most co-operative I have ever seen as most turn tail as soon as the car stops. This one stood his ground and I got some fine images.

MOUNTAINS EXTENSION



Kathi joined me for the mountain extension in Jasper and Banff National Parks for four days with my group. One of the highlights of the trip was taking the gondola car up to Whistlers to search for the elusive WHITE TAILED PTARMIGAN. It was a bitter morning and we had layers and layers of clothing but still were bitterly cold. All that changed though when a male WHITE TAILED PTARMIGAN turned up putting on a tremendous show calling away from the top of a rock and strutting his stuff. It was an amazing experience.

This picture Kathi took gives you an idea of how incredibly close we got to the bird. In fact the male seemed curious about me, walking towards me on several occasions to within a few feet.



So here is what the image looks like from my end of the lens! It was one of those times when the cold just didnt seem to matter and the bird was all that we could see or feel... wonderful memories!

ALBERTA trip 1 wrap up



Just one last post from my first prairies and boreal trip and this one is a shot from the Cypress Hills I couldnt resist. We had a great morning with some of the local specialties and this male WESTERN TANAGER was a real hit!

10.6.10

SASK - GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK

This morning we left at 4:30 am to view a prairie dog town in Grasslands National Park. This was a fabulous morning with lots of LARK BUNTINGS displaying, scope views of BAIRDS SPARROWS, MCCOWNS LONGSPURS, CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS, LONG-BILLED CURLEWS, and at least 4 BURROWING OWLS. However it was mammals that stole the show on this gorgeous song filled prairie morning....

We saw many BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOGS, at least two BADGERS, a couple of COYOTES and many MULE DEER, and RICHARDSONS GROUND SQUIRRELS. However one mammal was a true standout. For me it was a life mammal and one that I figured I would never see. Almost certainly still part of a release program but still seeing a BLACK FOOTED FERRET in the wild was awesome. At one point we watched it face off with a BURROWING OWL at a distance of only a few feet! This pic is fuzzy as it was digiscoped but no doubt about what it was!

9.6.10

ALBERTA - COLD LAKE AREA



My group spent two days birding the Cold Lake area to begin out trip (June 7th and 8th). Among the many highlights were a male THREE-TOED WOODPECKER which responded well to an imitation of Barred Owl. It was on the north end of Primrose Lake Road along with two YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHERS, at least six NASHVILLE WARBLERS, an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, a family of GRAY JAYS, displaying SOLITARY SANDPIPER, and a BOREAL CHICKADEE that stayed still long enough for everyone to enjoy scope views!




We had a great selection of warblers (including great views of CONNECTICUT, MOURNING and CANADA), plus scope views of LECONTE'S and NELSON'S SHARP-TAILED SPARROWS, and SEDGE WRENS. One of the most fun sightings for the group was a family of RUFFED GROUSE which included at least six tiny chicks. The adults vigorously defended the brood making some amazing noises while doing a broken wing act. These two images were captured as the adults tried to lure us away from their brood.


Carol and Fred Hummerstone, and members of the Beaver River Naturalists (including president Ted Hindmarch) hosted our group for a barbecue on the evening of the 7th. This was a wonderful time and we look forward to coming back again for some fine birding and hospitality!

ALBERTA - BEARS

Paul and I spent June 4th doing a mad dash from Canmore to Jasper and back to search for bears. Well I say bears, but our real target was not Black Bear, but Grizzly Bear - a much more difficult critter to see.

We had a great day and the weather was much better than predicted. We had pretty good luck with Black Bears finding six during the day. Here are images of two different individuals, both of which were grazing on grass!





One of the best wildlife finding techniques here is to simply watch for the jams of cars that occur when a bear or other critter appear along the roadside. We lucked onto a GRIZZLY BEAR this way. However it was on the move and quite distant. Soon the mob of cars disappeared as the bear moved out of sight. We tried to predict where the bear might turn up and to our amazement it did exactly as we expected. We tracked it down to where it had to walk along a narrow edge of the road and I was able to get this image by the edge of a lake.




It soon decided to cross the road right behind us and I managed to get some images as it climbed the bank at the side of the road. What a thrill to see this incredible animal at such close range! Look at the size of those claws on the front paws!!!


LUCK LAKE, SASK - BAR TAILED GODWIT

Today we left Rosetown, Saskatchewan around 9 am and headed south to one of my favourite birding sites in the province - Luck Lake. We hoped to catch some lingering Arctic bound migrant shorebirds here, but I knew even if there were none present that the breeding shorebirds and waterfowl would still keep us busy. We entered the lake from the north side along a causeway which runs roughly north south and crosses the western third of the lake. In addition to the numerous AMERICAN AVOCETS, MARBLED GODWITS, WILLETS and WILSON'S PHALAROPES, we managed to find a smattering of migrants such as BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (10), SANDERLING (20), SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER (40), WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER (12).
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At our second stop about 500 metres from the north end of the lake, I was stunned to see a strange GODWIT feeding next to two Marbled Godwits. It was bright orange on the neck and chest fading to white on the underparts. The feeding style was also much different, as the bird stayed with a low flat profile to the back and appeared smaller and quite short legged. It also appeared that the tail was barred when viewed from the side. I had a strong suspicion what the bird was but checked Sibley and it was unequivocal that this was a BAR-TAILED GODWIT coming into alternate plumage!!!!! My group of eight spent the next half hour watching the bird, including twice when it took flight allowing us to get some diagnostic views of the tail and wing pattern.

In the first image below you will note the short legged appearance of the bird and the orange neck and breast fading to white underparts.



In this image, taken as the bird landed, the "bar-tail" is clearly visible.



In this final image (my favourite!!), you can see the underwing pattern (important in godwits), tail pattern, and breast pattern.


I didnt have any contact information for Sask birders outside an email address for my friend Bob Luterbach (sorry Bob I lost your cell when my phone crashed and I lost all my addresses this spring). However a quick call to Ontarian Paul Pratt, helped to put the word out on Saskbirds. It looks like a number of birders were able to head out there today. I really hope the bird stuck around for them. I am not sure, but I would guess this is the first record for the province as there are very few records for this species for inland North America. This was my first for Canada and a great bird for the whole group.

29.5.10

ALBERTA - MISC

Killing a little time right now because it is snowing here in Cold Lake (gee, how appropriate!). Here are two images from southern Alberta that I took a few days ago.

First a RED FOX from the campground in Waterton Lakes National Park. It allowed us to approach within about 150 feet possibly because there was a fast flowing river between us.




The next image is of a RUFFED GROUSE. Incredibly this was the third grouse species we got good images of in Waterton (also Dusky and Spruce Grouse - see pics in earlier posts). The grouse was crossing the road in the rain on the Red Rock Canyon road.


ALBERTA - COLD LAKE SPRING COUNT

Yesterday we bumped into some local birders who invited us to a gathering at Carol and Fred Hummerstones' property. This is the spring bird count weekend for the Cold Lake naturalists group. We enjoyed some great local hospitality, a fine BBQ, and met some new friends. Many thanks to the local naturalists and particularly the Hummerstones for a wonderful evening!

We also volunteered to help out with the count this weekend. On Saturday morning again we got up early and headed to the west side of Cold Lake. Today the name really did fit! The songbird action was good early in the morning, but soon slowed down as the east winds picked up. The temp never got much over 6 C (about 42 F) for the morning and it was overcast and windy. Fortunately the rain held off until around 3 in the afternoon and the SNOW until about 5:30 pm!!!

Despite the tough conditions, we had some incredible birds. No doubt the highlight of the day for us was scoping Cold Lake along the west side. The cold front grounded some Arctic bound breeders. We estimated no fewer than 200 SABINE'S GULLS, plus 3 JAEGERS (1 definite PARASITIC), and 5 PACIFIC LOONS!!! The birds were too far for binocs but with our scopes we got good views. Fortunately we were able to contact Ted Hindmarch, the count compiler so he could join us and add SABINE'S GULL to his life list.

The best photo opp of the day was provided by a male THREE-TOED WOODPECKER that we watched feeding for about twenty minutes. It was unconcerned by our presence. Below are a single photo and a video clip of the woodpecker.








video

ALBERTA - BONNYVILLE

Well yesterday was a complete wash out... literally. Indeed we left southern Alberta where the temps were hovering around 4 C and heavy rain with strong winds, and headed north to warmer conditions. This seemed like a better move than heading into Banff which had been our original plan. Why the change? Well Banff got hit with five inches of snow!

We arrived in Bonnyville in central eastern Alberta late on the 27th. We got up at 4 am on the 28th, and this was the sight from our hotel parking lot. As it turned out, 'red sky at dawn, sailor be warned' was not accurate - for today at least.




While we didn't get any rain or snow today, it was chilly, windy and gray for much of the day. That didn't stop us from racking up a good list of songbirds. Most of those were not suitable for photography but we did have fun with a pond with loads of waterfowl including several pairs of RUDDY DUCKS. The males would their squeaky emphatic calls, bobbing their heads and then rushing any other male that presented a potential threat. This male was particularly aggressive!


Here is another male part way through the head dipping display. The snap their head down rapidly as they call. It is quite an amusing sight.


27.5.10

ALBERTA - MORE WATERTON

Spring is late here in Waterton and the BIGHORN SHEEP are still hanging around the valley. We came across four groups in the town totaling about forty sheep. It was fascinating to watch the BLACK-BILLED MAPGIES landing on the sheep and pulling out their winter coats to search for ticks!



The image below shows a tuft of old hair in the beak of the magpie. We saw several of these clumps pulled with one or two juicy looking ticks on them.



One of the key targets for us here was DUSKY GROUSE. The males do their hooting display at this time of year, and since this population was split from SOOTY GROUSE (together formerly BLUE GROUSE), we wanted to make sure we had it on our Alberta lists. We were thrilled when Paul spotted a male right by the side of the road just above the townsite in late evening.



It got even better when the male began hooting and displaying when he was only about ten feet away from us - a truly amazing experience!



ALBERTA - CAMERON LAKES ROAD

From Waterton townsite, the main access to higher altitude forest is via Cameron Lake Road. It ascends through a series of switchbacks and then into a steep sided valley that eventually reaches Cameron Lake. We drove the 15 km long road and saw only two other cars. Right along the roadside we bumped into a female SPRUCE GROUSE. As is typical with this species, she was remarkably tame (hence the nickname FOOL HEN). At one point the grouse walked directly towards me and within two feet (much too close to focus with my 100-400 lens!!).



Although it was late May, Waterton had several large late spring snow storms this year. So the forest was still full of snow, with large drifts along the roadside.


When we arrived at Cameron "Lake" we were surprised to find that there was virtually no open water at all. We walked over four or five foot high snow drifts to get this image. There was a tiny sliver of open water with a pair of BARROW'S GOLDENEYE.


Waterton N P is contiguous with Glacier N P in the US. In fact, the south end of this lake and the mountain behind me are actually IN THE US! Here is a close up of the mountain slope.

ALBERTA - DAY 1

Paul Pratt and I arrived in Alberta on May 25th and began scouting out sites for my upcoming Alberta and Saskatchewan tours. It took most of the morning to get out of the airport, get our rental car and clear the city. By early afternoon we were heading south towards Waterton National Park. En route Paul spotted a male MERLIN sitting on a roadside post eating something. I quickly turned the car around and returned to the bird which was incredibly tame - allowing us to approach within about twenty five feet as it ate.



We arrived in Waterton in late afternoon. This national park is stunningly beautiful. Here is an image of the lake and backdrop on the entrance drive.





In the townsite itself there were numerous COLUMBIAN GROUND SQUIRRELS, which scolded repeatedly at the slightest threat. I managed to catch this one as it was screaming at Paul and I - a really cute little critter.




13.5.10

PELEE - MAY 13th


This morning I did chores and then headed down to the park in early afternoon to take a quick look for a reported Western Grebe. No luck with that but while scanning at Northwest Beach I was surprised to spot an adult light phase PARASITIC JAEGER!

I continued down to the visitor center and there I heard that the photo opps in Tildens were good. I spent most of the rest of the afternoon there.

One of the lowest and easiest birds to see was this TENNESSEE WARBLER. This is a bird that is quite hard to photograph as it normally stays way up in the canopy.




At first I had trouble with trying to get the right set up for photographing in these overcast conditions. Fortunately I ran into professional photographer and good friend Chris Dodds. He set me straight on the best setting and compensation and right away my results improved. This was a good thing because there were lots of great birds like this ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK to capture. Thanks Chris!





There were at least fifteen warbler species in Tilden's but I only managed to get decent images of about four species, including this BLACK-THROATED GREEN (a female).



PELEE - MAY 12th

After yesterdays complete wash out, I headed down to the park with another full group of visitors. It turned out to be the best day of the spring migration by far. We tallied 25 species of warblers, all 6 regular vireos, both cuckoos, a perched LEAST BITTERN, and many other great birds. The number of BLACKBURNIAN WARBLERS was particularly impressive. I estimated that we spotted between 150 and 250 of these gorgeous songbirds. We also had huge numbers of NASHVILLE and BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLERS as well.