Friday 23 May 2008

A good day to be a birder

Something is very wrong with this post, and I mean wrong in the most unjust, immoral and grievous way instead of wrong regarding layout and spelling (granted, that's also going to be the case, as usual).
And just so that you know, I am going to tell you right away what it is that has me crying out loud in despair:
This post is about the 24th of May (which is tomorrow) three years ago!

And that's just a mighty long time too long ago.

Aaanyway, here goes, and as we are now starting to see posts where birders mention that spring migration in North America is winding down (well, those migrants have to wind down from the skies sometime to land on their breeding ground, right? So I don't know what the big deal is about that), here's my testimony, my raised finger and shout-out statement that baby, it ain't over 'til it's over!

Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada, one finest and earliest morning of May 24th, 2005

The night had been short, all too short to be precise. Luckily, there was no chance or risk of me sleeping in as the car seat of my rental had been far too uncomfortable again, so in the first light of dawn I was up, birding gear around neck and shoulder and out on the trails of the park.
I remember that it was cold before the sun came up and when I got to the head of the Marsh Trail, a breeze from the lake didn't help much either to forget the night's chills.
The reason for choosing the Marsh Trail as my first birding location of the day were three-fold:

It is a long, long dead end trail and according to the observation book at the office, it receives very little attention by visiting birders, so I was likely to not meet anyone and that - I felt - was a bonus hard to beat after a few days on the crowded trails of Point Pelee (that was before I experienced the trails at Crane Creek, but more on that later, possibly).
My trip list was lacking a few Marsh birds, especially rails and Least Bittern, and that was unlikely to be mended by another woodland walk.
My trip list also suffered from a severe lack of Empids, with only Least recorded, and I had been told at the information centre that both Alder and Willow Flys were likely to be encountered along the trail.

The fact that my choice had been excellent was proven by a singing Alder Flycatcher along the first short stretch of the path, and even though the peculiar feeling of being at the right place at the right time was starting to grow in my tummy, I was still completely ignorant of the quality birding the day would bring.

The first stretch of the Marsh Walk produced some fine birds for sure, like Philadelphia Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher and 8 species of warbler (most notably being Ovenbird, a late Yellow-rumped and Wilson's), but the marshy component was still missing. Towards the south however, the trees began to vanish and the Marsh opened up, with cattails, reeds and flooded meadows on both sides of the trail. It was here that I finally picked up species like Marsh Wren, Caspian and Forster's Terns, and from the willows, the distinct song of Willow Flycatchers was heard as well, with some of the birds giving excitingly close views at eyelevel just a few metres away. I was surprised to see a few fly-over shorebirds, most unexpectedly including a Ruddy Turnstone, but the single most unexpected observation was surely that of an American Bittern flushed right besides the path. Sadly, a Virginia Rail was heard only. A Savannah Sparrow with two distinct white stripes ("suspenders") on its back had me all confused and in high-adrenaline-hopes, but alas, it could not be turned into a Nelson's Sharptail. A few Black Terns offered their condolence about this though, which was welcome, as was the sight of 1,600 Double-crested Cormorants which were scanned thoroughly in a vain attempt at locating the Neotropical Cormorant that had been seen in the general area. Returning North again back towards the camp ground, the trees bordering the path produced different surprise birds as on the way down.
Apparently, birds were in a big mood to migrate. Flycatchers in particular were there in force, and although the Lord of the Fly's (Olive-sided) would evade me all day despite an excellent supply of snags, Yellow-bellied, Least (4th Empidonax of the day), Great Crested, Phoebe and Wood-pewee were quickly added, as was a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

It had gotten late and the fact that I hadn't eaten anything all day started to feel a bit unpleasent by 1:30 p.m., the time I returned to my car at the camp ground.
Being the birder I am, I was now faced with the fact that I had not brought any food with me (come on, who would waste minutes in shops at the end of May in southern Ontario?! Not me for sure!). I needed body fuel though in order to not pass out on the trails which would have me miss out on even more birding than if I had gone for food, so what was I to do?
I knew that they offered basic breakfast at the information centre, so I headed there to see what had been seen in the park and tuck in seriously. Upon getting there, my thirst and hunger were overwhelming, so I pushed open the door, stepped in and shouted: "Quick, three beer and a pizza!"
"Where and when?" was the reply of the birders present, and I will never fathom the debth of the Canadian sense of humour.
After a good few bagles and cream cheese I was off to the southern tip, with the plan being to drive there, park the car, walk to the tip and back north again through the interior of the peninsular to the Information Centre and from there down south again along the beach to the parking lot containing my car. This was quite a hike, as you might gather from my description, but this was May, this was Southern Ontario, this was what birding is all about and such is life anyway.
The birding was grand to say the least. Surprise birds were fly-over Great Egrets, a Green Heron perched quite a distance away from the water at the parking lot, a huge gathering of gulls off the tip, with an estimated 3,000 immature Bonaparte's Gulls, 500 Ring-billeds, 100 Herring and a Great Black-backed, all feeding on the millions of small dead fish washed ashore (a natural phenomenon I was told, and I haven't mentioned the exquisite smell yet which was overwhelming, especially after some bagles with cream cheese), and songbirds came through my field of view without end, including more Least and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Eastern Towhee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, all regular thrushes except Hermit (none all day), more Brown Thrashers and a total of 16 species of wood warblers, most remarkable great views of a Yellow-breasted Chat, a heard-only Cerulean Warbler, Orange-crowned, Canada, my first ever Mourning and more Wilson's Warblers.
On the last bit of tar road just before the information centre, and just after adding Acadian Flycatcher to my life list (the last of the regular eastern Empidonax flycatchers, all seen on one day!) I hit a small pocket of warblers and vireos at eye-level just a few metres into the forest.

This was when it happened:

Very soon I spotted a “Blue-headed Vireo” that

a) didn’t even have a trace of green on its back, just a bright blue-grey/plumbeous (if you catch my drift) colouration

b) showed no yellow or buff on the underside / flanks, just pure white or maybe a trace of blue- grey

c) showed a weaker white supercilium before the eye than I had noticed in Blue-headed Vireos, though the spectacles were bright and normal.

I basically had no idea what I was looking at (being only familiar with the ordinary Eastern vireos and not having learned the Western vireos by heart) but new that this was a bit too much for individual variation in a Blue-headed Vireo. I therefore observed it very closely and as I was only a few hundred metres away from the Information centre eventually rushed there to check the identification guide and get others (staff / more credible people than myself) to confirm my observation.

Getting there and looking through the "Sibley's" on their counter it became immediately and spontaneously clear that I had seen a frickingly amazing blotty heckish out of range PLUMBEOUS Vireo!

But as rain follows sunshine, it was the staff's day off, there was only one (non-birder) person behind the counter at the information centre and it was thus impossible for her to leave the office unattended, and no visiting birders were anywhere to be seen.
No pictures, no witnesses, just me and the bird and my word of birder's honour and a whole bunch of excited (and eventually disappointed) birders the next day who did not manage to relocate the bird.
I never reported it to the rarities committee. I know I should have, but that's just the way it is.

A great bird nonetheless.

After a bit of a break at the camp ground (I needed to reformat my brain's harddrive after such an observation and also had a shower - yes, I am not quite that radical about my birding time schedule), I returned to the information centre's parking lot after dark upon a tip I had gotten from the staff the day before:

I was not disappointed in the least.

The chorus of "night-singers" was reminiscent of the wildest (birdwise) nights in Africa, and to end the day with hearing 1 Whip-poor-will, 1 Common Nighthawk, 5 American Woodcocks and a Chuck-will's-Widow (a mighty good bird for Canada) was very well-received by this humble birder of yours.

I ended the day with a staggering 112 species, roughly half my trip's total, without having tried for a "Big Day". Some of the misses are ridiculous, like Prothonotary Warbler (at Rondeau, of all the places!) and 19 species of warbler is pretty shabby to be honest, so I am sure a bit of dedication and a knowledge of song (all the species except "night singers", rail(s), Alder Fly and Cerulean were seen) would surely have produced a day's total somewhere in the 130ies or 140ies.
This day turned out to be amongst the most productive and memorable birding days of my entire life indeed, and to think I had condemned my stupidity of not taking up another hobby that doesn't require sleeping in cars and getting up at 4:30 in the morning before I started my birding endeavour only has me shaking my head now in retrospective.

Here's my day's list for those interested, and for those who are not, this sentence will mark the end of the post (so there's no need to scroll to the bottom of 112 lines).

I promise to post some pics soon again!

Common Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Lesser Scaup
Red-breasted Merganser
Common Merganser
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Bald Eagle
Virginia Rail
Semipalmated Plover
Ruddy Turnstone
American Woodcock
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
American Herring Gull
Greater Black-backed Gull
Black Tern
Forster's Tern
Caspian Tern
Mourning Dove
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied. Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Plumbeous Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Bank Swallow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Marsh Wren
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Swainson's Thrush
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Mourning Warbler
Canada Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Baltimore Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch

Thursday 15 May 2008

Late Learning in The Great Outdoors - part 1

This post was meant as a contribution to the blog carnival "Learning in the Great Outdoors".
I was - however - so satisfied with getting down to writing something for my blog (instead of just posting a few pics and making up a few lines) that I got carried away and continued to write and write and write.
This had two dire consequences:

1. I didn't meet the deadline of LitGO # 12 and thus was - naturally as I didn't submit - not included.

2. The post had to be broken down into several parts, with the nice consequence that I can still extend the ones not posted yet.

Okay, without further ado, here goes:

Two Lessons Learned in the Great Outdoors
Part 1 : Where I Learned

The Fish River Canyon in the far South of Namibia is a place where magic abounds and where the wonders of the Great Outdoors are breathed in with every step you take. However, and very remarkably so, it is also a place that only few get to fully appreciate, for a reason that is highly unjust as it has nothing to do with the Canyon itself. It is too far off the other touristy highlights of the country and for those who venture into South Africa, the adjacent Namaqua Land also offers no significant attractions (unless you are a birder and terribly fond of larks), so in general there is a big rush from Namibia’s Keetmanshoop past the Canyon and all the way down to Cape Town. The Fish River Canyon is usually experienced by those travellers from the view points scattered along its eastern rim during a short detour from the highway. After about an hour or two and a few pretty pictures matching exactly those you see in travel magazines or on postcards, the area is ticked off the trip’s to-do list in a nonchalant been-there-seen-that way and left in a hurry - with Cape Town or Windhoek’s airport calling loud and clear.

This is very much how I experienced the Fish River Canyon during a short stop around high noon back in 1991, and the blinding harsh sunlight reflected off the cliffs, the heat and the general lack of life amongst the rocks made for one of the least memorable moments of my travels through southern Africa.

A few years later, in 1997, I was about to finish my studies of Zoology at the University of Greifswald and was looking for a research project for my Master’s Thesis. The only local option was salt marsh beetles - admittedly an excellent group of biota to understand the ecosystems along the Baltic coast of Germany but not really the reason I started studying Zoology in the first place - and thus I soon found myself enquiring about projects abroad. Soon, my attention was focused on Namibia but in the days of affirmative action, it was very difficult for a foreigner or a white man (let alone for a white foreigner) to get into anything even remotely similar to an official project or research position. The radio-collared Leopards of Waterberg Plateau, the prime target at the onset of my enquiries, were soon found to be definitely out of reach.

Just as I started to accept having to fall in love with beetles, a surprise possibility arose: a scientist I met during my early days at the University of Freiburg was to start working as the general manager of a huge (600 square kilometres) private game farm in southern Namibia and invited me to visit him privately and conduct my studies there. No official permit needed, just a tourist visa you get at the airport in Windhoek. He also offered to be my supervisor, so the case was settled rather quickly and preparations began.

Of all the places in Namibia however, the farm was bordering on the Fish River Canyon National Park (nowadays called Ai-Ais / Richtersveld Transfrontier National Park or Peace Park), a place I thought (back then) was amongst the few ... well ... lesser attractive ones in Namibia, especially when compared to the lush and green (in parts, this is still Namibia) Caprivi Strip and Kaokovelt.

But beggars can't be choosers and as this was my only chance to avoid the salt marsh beetles, I was all game and ready to dive right into the Great Outdoors of Namibia's Fish River Canyon.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Glass Windows...

... helping to entertain bored office workers since 2000 BC

Wednesday 7 May 2008

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

During the usual craze, madness and insanity of an ordinary work day, I looked up from my desk to the sky outside my office yesterday and then this came over:

A nice adult - probably female - White-tailed Eagle. They are common along the German Baltic coast and I see them a few times each year from my office window, but never before did one come this close while I had my camera at hand.

Friday 2 May 2008

May P.O.R.N.

Today is what the Germans call a "Bridge Day". Well, of course they don't call it "Bridge Day", they call it "Brückentag", but it translates to just that and it means it is one of those working days that separate a public holiday (in this case May 1st) from a weekend. Everyone in their right state of mind would take such a Bridge Day off to have a short 4-day holiday, but of course the fact that people in their right state of mind would do it generally excludes me. Which is precisely why I am here at the office, working while the sky is blue, the temps are pleasing, the birds are moving - all without me - and my wife keeps calling me every 30 minutes to tell me how lovely it is outside and how sad I wasn't there with her.

To compensate for all this misery, and in case anyone else today shares my sorry fate, here's some May P.O.R.N. (Pictures Of Returning Neotrops) from last year's trips to Ohio's Crane Creek in May, offerering quick and easy satisfaction to those desperate for a visual warbler fix but deprived of the place and time to enjoy the real thing.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler


Northern Waterthrush