updated lifelist

I’ve updated my lifelist to reflect the sightings of the past month or so. I still need to find usable photos (e.g. those in the public domain or licensed for non-commercial use) and enter a bunch of latin names, but the list of birds itself is now complete.

Through doing this update I’ve realized that I’ve crossed the 200 bird mark! This number includes all birds sighted everywhere, i.e. the 27 birds I saw in Ireland (the Ring-Necked Pheasant is the only bird that appears in both places). It’s my goal to reach 200 birds in North America by the end of the year. I would say ‘no problem, I’ve been going gang-busters since the beginning of the year!’ except…. Except I’m trying to be realistic: it’s been the spring migration and that’s no way to gauge how the rest of the year will go. Nonetheless there are still whole categories of birds I’m completely weak on — owls spring readily to mind — and more that are common in the right habitat. I’ll be traveling north again toward the end of the summer, and with a little luck I’ll be able to pick up some more locals in other places.

Twenty-four (more) new birds before the end of the year seems daunting, but I remind myself that I’ve already seen fifty-two new birds this year. Fifty-two! I had no idea it was that many until I tallied them up just now. I’m kind of impressed with myself. So there you go.

updated lifelist

new life birds in London (Ontario)

I spent most of this past week visiting family in the hospital on Western’s campus in London (Ontario). While there, I took the opportunity to walk along the Thames and check out the breeding birds. Many were familiar — Yellow Warblers, House Wrens, Grackles, Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Catbirds, and a Great Blue Heron — but we were lucky and persistent enough to see a few new ones. On the second day of our afternoon walks, we tracked a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers along the path; they were making plenty of noise, but the gray light made identification difficult at first. Once we got a good look at the dark crest, wing stripes, and yellow belly things were a lot easier. We also spent what seemed like an ungodly amount of time craning upwards at what we eventually resolved was a male American Redstart. He landed on a perch near us long enough to get a good look, even turning around several times to display his plumage from all angles as if he despaired of us ever identifying him on our own.

The next day we returned hoping to get a repeat performance, but they never reappeared. We did spot the nests of several different birds — one complete with babies — and located an Eastern Wood Peewee on the way back along the trail as well as a male Baltimore Oriole hanging out above a squawking juvenile hawk, completely unperturbed. The peewee, with its light yellow chest, was quite fun to watch flying out after bugs, and the oriole was a nice first sighting for my partner. We didn’t return the next day; temperatures hit 90F and that was just a bit much to be tromping through the woods at the height of the afternoon. Nonetheless, every new bird, however common, is a nice addition to the lifelist and I’m pleased to have seen some of the woodland species.

In addition to the birds, I was pleased to come across numerous toads hopping into the shady underbrush, most likely a combination of American and Fowler’s. We also spotted enormous soft-shelled turtles — dark brown shells, light limbs, pointy up-turned noses — which were likely Eastern Softshells (judging from the maps in my Peterson’s guide, which I still haven’t learned to take with me on these trips).

The next task is to update my records to reflect all of these new sightings, a task which is suited to 90+ degree weather!

new life birds in London (Ontario)

Even’ Star Organic Farm party

Rhubarb Ginger Galette, round two.

We celebrated Memorial Day by attending a party at ‘our’ farm: Even’ Star Organic Farm, where we’re members of the CSA. We’d had a fun time at the autumn party and enjoyed the drive down, which included stopping on the way for pumpkins and honey at a farm stand in Dunkirk. This time we drove straight through, and arrived for a gorgeous afternoon.

Having taken the farm tour last autumn, we opted for eating the delicious food, drinking the tasty Weiss beer, and lounging around. My contribution to the desserts was a Rhubarb Ginger Galette with a half-whole-wheat crust; it was meant to be all whole wheat, but I mistook the bags of flour and dumped the remaining white flour into the bin by mistake. I was glad that I had planned to make and bring two galettes, as that meant I already had a backup plan in place when the first one wasn’t ready for prime time: I forgot to strain out the excess liquid from the fruit and inadvertently omitted the butter that would have thickened the filling, which combined with a small tear in the crust to create a gooey puddle around one half of the pan. This first round also helped make clear that the galette needed to cool on the sheet; once we’d let it cool that way overnight it slid off onto a board without a problem. Probably the French have some large flat galette-removing spatula-type implement, but I certainly don’t.

Having an afternoon party meant no bonfire, but it did mean that we could explore the woods a bit more. Once we’d eaten, we trooped off in search of new birds. As promised, we sighted several Indigo Buntings in the fallow fields near the house. Buntings, like bluebirds, are common in the right habitat in this region, but I’d yet to see one. I still haven’t gotten over the surprise of seeing such blue birds, so it was a thrill to see them popping up over the grasses. On the drive in we’d seen a true Black Vulture in a group that was devouring something on the grassy median of the road. It was unmistakable with its deep black plumage, gray face and white beak, and it was a thrill to get such a good look at it on the ground after years of peering into the skies hoping not to see the flash of red on the faces of what always turned out to be Turkey Vultures. In addition to those long sought after life birds, we lucked out and spotted a mature Bald Eagle circling over the treeline. It was only the second time I’ve seen an eagle in adult plumage, and the first for my partner, so that was a great treat. No trip to a farm is complete for me without sighting a few amphibians, and the best part of the day was seeing a juvenile salamander that the kids had collected from the stream. The frogs and tadpoles were lovely, of course, but the little guy with gills still on was particularly nice.

On the way back home we stopped to check on Solomon’s Island Winery, which is quite small and run by a couple basically out of their home. The property is smaller than my family’s blueberry farm, which means that it would be virtually impossible for them to grow their own grapes. The wines were largely low alcohol fruit-flavored varieties—coolers in a bottle seem to be a popular item in Maryland—with only a couple of serious labels. The Meritage was decent and tasted like a Bordeaux, as advertised. The Icewine was also a fine dessert wine; we bought a bottle, and it made me regret not tasting the Eisling when we were at Boordy Vineyards earlier in the weekend. Overall, though, I would recommend sticking with wines by actual vineyards, from regions where the terrain is more suitable to growing grapes.

Having fulfilled our farm-related duties for the season—sent in our check, attended the party—we now sit back and let the food come to us. Not too shabby!

Even’ Star Organic Farm party

new life birds on the Delaware Bay

This week we got up early on Saturday to travel to Delaware for the Migratory Bird Festival at Bombay Hook. Our goal was to see new shorebirds, and we were successful, even with the high water remaining from last week’s storms. After getting up at 4:30am, we were on the road at 5:20am. This was the first time I’d gotten on the road before dawn in order to see birds, another small milestone in the evolution of my birding hobby. Most organized birding events start at such ungodly hours, so I expect I’ll be doing more of that in the future. The first time around, though, I was grateful to not have to drive myself or interact with strangers before my morning coffee.

The drive was mostly uneventful; the weather was clear and we made good time. On the Bay Bridge I made the mistake of looking out at the water with binoculars: I’ve never gotten nauseous so quickly in my entire life. The remaining hour drive with the windows down restored me mostly to normal, but I now understand the warnings about going on pelagic birding tours. At the refuge we doused ourselves from head to toe in DEET and gathered outside the visitors’ center for our boat ride through the salt marsh (the reason we’d planned to arrive so early). The ride was fun, although it didn’t yield as many bird sightings as we’d hoped as a result of the recent flooding. We heard the distinctive Clapper Rail in the grasses, flushed a Spotted Sandpiper, which then made its jerky-winged way down the channel in front of us for a fair stretch, and saw groups of Dowitchers and smaller birds winging their way overhead. The small number of birds was less of a disappointment than losing my hat to the wind and water; I was able to replace it with a new one from the gift shop, but it won’t be the same as my old smiling-girl-on-a-bike one that I’d had since doing the AIDS ride five years ago.

After the boat ride, the new hat, an early lunch, and the receipt of a free native Summersweet cutting for our home garden, we set out to bird the auto tour. As hoped, we soon discovered shorebirds aplenty, almost all of them new. At the first pond, we came across the flock of American Avocets, beautiful large graceful birds. They flew off before we could get a close look at them, however we saw them in flight several times through the afternoon and caught up with them at a later point on the tour. It took us a while to get into the habit of seeing the smaller brown birds, but eventually we got better: we would simply scan the landscape two or three times until their shapes jumped out at us from the same patches of reeds we’d previously passed over, much like those brain teasing posters at the mall. In this way we were able to identify the enormous flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plovers that were flying in and landing in large clusters as the tide rose in the outer parts of the refuge. In with this group was a single Semipalmated Plover; near but not intermingled we tracked a small group of Least Sandpipers and a couple of beautiful light gray Baird’s Sandpipers foraging along the water’s edge.

Once we’d had our fill of the refuge we decided to try our luck at the beaches down the coast a bit. Because Bombay Hook is predominantly salt marsh, it’s hard to spot those birds that don’t like to travel inland. We were hoping to get a look at some of the legendary long-distance migrants that stopped at this stretch of shore to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs before continuing north. Our first two attempts to make it to a beach ended in ‘road closed’ signs, an artifact of the earlier flooding. Pickering Beach Road was open, though, and we headed to the beach, dutifully following the marked public access route. On the beach, serendipity took over: we followed a large shorebird down the beach to the right, successfully identifying it as a Willet before it flew off. It led us to a stretch of sand that looked out onto what appeared to be a heap of old tires; I eventually concluded that it must have been a purposefully created outcrop designed to make up for the lack of large rocks along that part of the shore. At first glance the tires yielded only a single enormous gull, which neither my partner nor I found worthy of comment. Finding nothing else of interest on the beach to train the binoculars on, we both returned to the large gull only to discover that the tires were completely covered with medium-sized shorebirds after all: the very birds we’d traveled to the beach to try to see! A group of twenty or thirty Ruddy Turnstones were hanging out there — resting, no doubt, after their journey from South America — and a single pair of Red Knots was keeping us company. The decent size of the birds in combination with their distinctive markings — it’s hard to confuse the rusty back and stark head pattern of the Ruddy Turnstone or the salmon and gray combination of the Red Knot — allowed us to identify them conclusively, even with our minimalist binoculars.

The sighting of these two birds was the perfect end to the day, allowing us to return home on a high note of success rather than continuing to head down the shore getting ever more tired and frustrated. I was proud of myself for sighting seven new life birds, most of them painstakingly identified by the two of us without outside assistance. And, I have another free plant for the garden!

new life birds on the Delaware Bay

new life birds at Bombay Hook

This past weekend we took advantage of nice weather and an unscheduled day to drive to the wildlife refuge at Bombay Hook in search of new shorebirds. Shorebirds are the other glaring weak spot in my birding — warblers being the first — and I’ve vowed that this year I will improve my skills. Our trip revealed that I’m getting better, but for little brown birds running around on mudflats at a distance, I really could use a stronger pair of binoculars. The ones I have do fine for large birds at a distance and small birds in the woods, but sandpipers and waterfowl across the marsh at dusk all blur together.

Technological limitations aside, we spotted about thirty species on our trip, with seven new life birds among them. The first birds of the trip were two birds of prey along the road into the refuge: a Rough-Legged Hawk hovering over a field and a Northern Harrier taking off from a telephone wire. The harrier was also the first life bird of the day; it felt like an auspicious beginning to see something new before even reaching our destination. Just inside the gate we promptly spotted some familiar friends: Eastern Bluebirds, grackles, robins, starlings and mockingbirds. At the nesting houses outside the visitors’ centre were the first Purple Martins of the year; we got a nice good look at them as they staked out their ground against the starlings. Although shorebirds were the goal, I couldn’t make myself drive quickly past the other habitat on the way to the flats, and as a result we caught sight of the second life bird of the day, a Ring-Necked Pheasant making its merry way along the edge of the field just at the start of the driving loop. I know these are common birds, somewhat disdained for being introduced and descendants of domestic escapees to boot, but I hadn’t seen one in North America before. In the same stretch of fields I spotted a couple of Horned Larks mixed in with the hordes of Red-Winged Blackbirds, starlings and robins, and in the pond beyond we found a handful of gulls, including our old Chincoteague nemesis, the Laughing Gull.

Moving on to the first pond, we unintentionally flushed a Great Egret and a Snowy Egret from the marsh opposite and caught a Great Blue Heron flying in overhead. As luck would have it, a Black-Necked Stilt landed at the edge of the pond just as we arrived and we got a good close look at it poking around. We’d seen a couple at Chincoteague during the spring migration three years ago, but this was a great second sighting. Also in the pond were Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, and Green-Winged Teals, birds I’d seen on my trip up last month but which were new to my partner. Circling overhead was a tern that I would swear was a Roseate were (1) they not so rare and (2) I a more confident birder. The bird had a crisp black head and nape, a black bill, and the longest outer tail feathers I’ve ever seen on a tern. Later in the day we did see Forster’s Terns, so it’s possible that the light made the bill of this one look black. I would love to know if any Roseates have been sighted along the Northeast coast recently, though, as the tail was striking enough that I retain my doubts. Even with an inconclusive identification, the tern was exciting to see!

On our way to the mudflats, we found a pair of Blue-Winged Teals mixed in with some Green-Winged Teals dabbling around in low tide. I believe they nest at Bombay Hook, but I had failed to find any on my previous visit, so they were a good surprise. The other neat surprise, after peering after Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs — new to me but not particularly challenging to find or identify — and hordes of Dunlins in various stages of breeding plumage, was an American Golden-Plover running around on the flat closest to the road. Its back and head were in full breeding plumage, with the belly still filling in, but it was glowing and sharp looking nonetheless. With its white undertail coverts and white flank stripe it most resembled its European cousin, but the fact that the vast majority of North American sightings of those birds occurred in Newfoundland (thanks again, Sibley!) — and much peering through our binoculars with our elbows propped on the roof of the car — swayed us to the belief that it simply hadn’t gotten all its summer feathers yet. It was still a good catch of a less common — and good-looking! — native bird, so we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

The rest of the trip yielded nothing new, but as we made our way around the rest of the loop we spotted a Killdeer, several Black-Crowned Night Herons roosting in the trees with the Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets, and a single Cattle Egret hanging out on the edge of the marsh with a Snowy Egret. Our very last sighting of the day was a young Bald Eagle wading around in low tide, surrounded by several shorebirds that seemed not at all concerned about being eaten. I suppose in a place with an abundance of ducks, shorebirds are a little skimpy for its taste. Either way, it was funny to see such an obvious predator landed in the midst of what I would certainly have tagged as prey.

By the time we left the sun had definitely gone down, the mosquitoes were out in force, and we had to wait for the automatic gate to release us. It was a good day, though, and if I didn’t see the teeming and varied masses of sandpipers I was hoping for, there’s always next month (or year).

new life birds at Bombay Hook