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Big Island Endemics

It had been along time since I had set foot on a Hawaiian island.

The last time was on a family vacation and the island was Kauai. Before that, I had been badly sunburned while snorkeling in Maui. Mom did tell me to wear a t-shirt. Always listen to your mother!

I guess I had avoided Hawaii for a number of reasons, too many to note: too crowded, too touristy, too much introduced flora and fauna, too expensive. My idea of a vacation has never been about laying on a beach getting a tan (see above about Maui snorkeling).

Instead, I go on vacation, waking up at ungodly hours and learning as much as I can in one day. I sketch, bird, sketch some more, walk and hike, learn as much as possible, take a few photos, visit some historical sites, look at architecture, and make time for lunch, repeat. At times my vacations can seem like a job! No sleeping in here. The closest I come to a “vacation” is doing a bit of natureloafing.

But there is one island in the Hawaiian Archipelago that I have not yet visited (Well actually there are a lot more). This is the youngest island, it is merely a million years old and it is still forming today. This is the island of Hawai’i and is also home to Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano.

It is also home to some of Hawaii’s endemic birds. And thats what was drawing me to the Big Island (pun intended). Many of the endemic avian species are endangered and I wanted to see as many of the unique birds as I could. the avifauna of Hawaii had been decimated by introduced species such as the black rat and the Indian mongoose and disease carried by not native mosquitos. This has resulted in the loss of 65% of Hawaiian avifauna.

When I planning a trip I like to started with a little hardbound notebook, in this case a Leuchturm 1917. While this is not a watercolor notebook, I like to add an illustration to the front page. In this case I chose to draw the Hawaiian State Bird, the endemic nene, or Hawaiian goose. It is fitting that a state entirely surrounded by water should be the only state with a waterfowl as it’s State Bird.

Well to wet my appetite, I started sketching some of my target species. I’ve learned that when I sketch a bird I have not yet seen in the field, the process helps me etch it’s forms and fieldmarks into my eye. I have that image at the ready for when I might see the bird, for real.

With any list of endemic species the state bird of Hawaii has to top the list. It is the nene or Hawaiian goose. I sketched this beautiful goose and it anchored the left side of my spread. On the right side I sketched another target bird, the Hawaiian honeycreeper: i’iwi. Both of the species are relatively easy to seen on the Big Island.

Another target bird for the Big Island is the Ae’o, the Hawaiian subspecies of the black-necked stilt.
The akispolaau is probably one of the most sought after Hawaiian honeycreepers. It is only found in high-elevation rainforests on the Big Island. I will definitely try to add this amazing and endangered species to my life list!
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Grasshopper Sparrow Sees a Grasshopper Sparrow!

Birding in the spring is a treasure. Many species are perched out and singing making them easy to see and hear.

Grasshopper Sparrow had a few lifers he was hoping to check off his list. Western kingbird, lazuli bunting, and of course his namesake: grasshopper sparrow.

Our destination was in San Mateo County near the small mountain town of La Honda. This is La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve. This OSP contains open meadows surrounded by the curvaceous green hills of California’s Coast Range.

Within 100 yards of the parking lot, as we walked along the wide fire road, we heard our first grasshopper sparrow!

Birding is made easy at La Honda Creek OSP with a graded fire roads with open views of the meadows, perfect habitat for the grasshopper sparrow.

As we walking down the fire road that bisects the meadow, we heard and saw five grasshopper sparrows. They where either perched up on coyote brush or singing from a barbed wire fence.

At this time of year, the grasshopper sparrow are singing their insect-like song, incessantly.
Corvid Sketcher and Grasshopper Sparrow as Grasshopper gets his namesake lifer: grasshopper sparrow.

After getting our fill of singing grasshopper sparrows, we continued on down the road where we were greeted by two wild turkeys. Then we headed into a habitat with a bit more tree cover and we saw our first flycatcher, the ash-throated flycatcher.

Are pair of wild turkeys in the tall, green grass.
Love is in the air, a sure sign of spring: copulating lark sparrows. These beautiful sparrows are considered rare in this location.
A singing male lazuli bunting.
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First of Season (FOS)

The unfolding of the year
And now our season is here
All the balances are clear
Now that our time is here

~Season Song, Blue States

A student of mine, let’s just call her Amelia, keep requesting that I post more bird drawings. I’m sure she’s tried of trains and more trains. So I decided to do a bird sketch in these times of social distancing.

The previous weekend, before anyone really got the message about shelter-in-place, I headed out to the San Mateo Coast to do some sketching and birding. (Two sketches from that outing were posted in my blog: Sketch in the Time of Covid.)

I was birding mainly on the coast, looking for kittiwakes and northern fulmars but I decided to take a detour inland to do some birding in a riparian habitat.

I took a right turn off of Highway One on Tunitas Creek Road. I remember the first time I birded this road was on an afterwork excursion. When I told my fellow teacher where I was going. She said, “You going now?! I wouldn’t go there. Be careful.” She then told me that Tunitas Creek Road was haunted and she had grown up in Half Moon Bay and no sane local would ever be on that road at dusk or in the night. Yeah right, I though, sounds like the rural coast’s version of an “urban myth.”

I birded Tunitas Creek afterwork and had a nice experience and I didn’t see any ghosts. When I got back home I did and an internet search with “Tunitas Creek Road haunted” in the search window and I came across the website titled, “10 Scariest Haunted Roads in Northern California”. I looked at the website and I scrolled down, scanning the 10 entries, not seeing Tunitas Creek Road. I had to reach the bottom of the page until there was any mention of the road in question because Tunitas Creek Road was ranked number 1 as the most haunted road in Northern California!

There have been reports of a long-armed blue lady who had been seen haunting this road at night and also bodies strewn among the bushes, the spirit reminders of a long ago Native Californian slaughter. But I was here on a mild March Saturday to see what I could find in the roadside bushes. I was not looking for bodies but birds!

I parked in a dirt pullout and walked west down the road, birding by ear. This is the time when bird calls and songs that I have almost forgotten come back to me. These are the times when migrants from Mexico and Central and South American are slowly returning to their breed grounds, here in the trees and bushes of Tunitas Creek.

Across the creek came the song of a bird that I am very familiar with. A fellow birder described the call as sounding like one of those lawn water sprinklers. It was a call that I hear from the deck of my cabin in spring and summer. This was the call of the Wilson’s warbler.

This was the first Wilson’s that I had seen since the turning of the year and it would be noted as FOS, meaning “first of season”. This data provides ornithologist with an idea of the pattern of migratory birds over time. Are these warblers migrating at the same time every year or are the arriving earlier or later than usual?

I love this warbler. It’s one of our smallest warblers and the adult male is easily identified with it’s bright yellow face and body and it’s black “yamaka”. This warbler is always in motion and in the spring and summer, calling frequetly.

As I walked along the road I came across a loose feeding flock of bushtits and chestnut-backed chickadees. In the flock was a bird I hadn’t seen in a long while. This is a bird that is often confused with the over-wintering ruby crowned kinglet but once this bird sings, it is all vireo. This is Hutton’s vireo.

It was nice to see these migratory birds. It is nature’s way of signaling the changing of the seasons. From the cold dark days of winter to the longer, green days or spring. The air filled with the scent of flowers and sounds of birdsong.

A male Wilson’s warbler photographed from my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, last spring.
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Christmas Birding: The Gift of Eagles

It is my Christmas Day tradition to wander down to the Central Valley to do some wintering waterfowl birding in the amazing Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, just north of the Sutter Buttes.

The weather forecast told of rain but that wasn’t going to turn me away from seeing the thousands of wintering waterfowl. Besides, the birds don’t mind the rain, they are covered in feathers after all.

I turned off Highway 99, heading west, at Live Oak. The houses soon became fewer and fewer as I made my way from small town to the rural farmlands on my way to Gray Lodge. In the fields bordering Almond Orchard Road I saw one of my expected species: sandhill crane. This is always an amazing bird, a “Birds of Heaven” as Peter Matthiessen called them.

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I soon turned into Gray Lodge and I looked out towards the Sutter Buttes and the expanse of water that contained hundreds, if not thousands, of ducks: mallard, American widgeon, pintail, cinnamon, blue-winged, and green-winged teal, bufflehead, gadwell, and northern shoveller. Greater white-fronted and snow geese filled the grey skies.

I started on the auto route. The majority of birding is done by car at Gray Lodge. Your car really becomes a moving blind or hide and as such, doesn’t seem to bother the birds too much.

One species that I always look forward to seeing at Gray Lodge is out National Bird, the bald eagle. These large raptors follow the wintering waterfowl and every time they lift off into the air, a mass of ducks and geese rises in their bow wake. I had seen a few far off eagles, perched in trees off to my right. I spotted a few immatures but as I neared them on the auto route, the eagles were jumpy and flew further off over the waters to a tree on the opposite point from where I was.

IMG_9134The unmistakable heft and upright posture of a bald eagle, in this a case an immature. This bird did not allow a close approach. An eagle takes five years to gain it’s iconic “outfit” that most people would recognize: white head and tail, yellow beak, and dark chocolate-brown body.

I came back to the start of the auto route and wanted to take another ride. As I neared one of the parking lots I saw an adult bald eagle flying to my left.

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An iconic adult bald eagle flying to my left. Four northern pintails fly above, and probibly away from the large raptor.

The eagle turned towards me and then headed away and landed in the top of a tree with an immature eagle. I raced forward along the route, hoping that the adult would stay.

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The adult landed and held it’s wings up as a group of American wigeons take to the air in all the excitement. The immature is to the lower right.

Eagle tree

As I moved toward the tree, which was just to the left of the road, the immature took off and headed off. Let’s hope the adult was not as jumpy. Every 20 yards of so, I would angle the car to the right to take a few photos through the driver’s side window.

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I finally stopped the car near the base of the tree. The adult was now about 40 yards away. The eagle surveyed the waters and presumably waterfowl, and I was able to enjoy the bird for about 5 minutes. Just as I reaching for my sketchbook and pen bag, the adult flew off across the waters, causing the ducks to lift up into the air and scatter. Now this was my kind of Christmas gift!

IMG_9282An adult bald eagle is distinctive, even as it’s flying away from you. It’s bright white tail is a beacon that tells you what you just missed!

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Extremadura and Las Canteras

 


Why Spain? You ask. The answer has been the same on recent trips both when boarding a plane or hitting the road. Birds, birds, birds.

Extremadura, the province southwest of Madrid, boasts an amazing array of avian riches in Europe, a high consentration of raptors and a handful of endemics which are birds that are found nowhere else in Europe.

Birders come from all over Europe to make a pilgrimage to this rural part of Spain to see Spainish imperial eagle (which once graced the flag of Franco’s Spain), Egyptian, griffon, and black vultures, black stork, Iberian magpie, bee-eater, lesser kestrel, great and little bustard. Many of the twitchers hailed from the mighty triad of birding nations of Northern Europe: the Netherlands, Germany, and Great Britain.

Extremadura sits on the flyway that bridges Northern Europe with Africa. This part of the Iberian Peninsula provides breeding habits for the colorful European bee-eater and roller as well as providing a year round habitat from many other species.

For this expedition I hired the services of a guide to take me to the birds, work as a translator and go-between with the locals, and help me navigate rural Spanish cuisine (which for me meant cheese, bread, and beer but sometimes augmented with wine.)

Las Canteras

My mastery of Castilian is clearly demonstrated by my different spelling of Las Canteras in this spread. It’s great to know that my spelling is appalling in any language!

My guide, Pau, chose Casa Rural Las Canteras Birdwatching Center as our base camp. From the front porch you could view the crumbling stone barn that had been reclaimed as a white stork rookery, containing at least eight active nests.  On the other side of the porch was a scope fixed on a little owl. No I mean that’s what the owl is called: Athene noctua ( odd name for a daylight owl). It seemed that no matter when you looked through the scope, the little owl is always perched on the stone wall. Uncanny! Well I had to sketch the owl on it’s permanent perch.

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So this is where babies are made! White stork nest at Las Canteras.

Las Canteras (or Carbones) is run by the innkeeper and his mother, whom I dubbed Doña Carbones. She looked at my white stork sketch and offered a little art criticism: “¡Muy bonito!” I’ll take it!

 

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Cape May, New Jersey: The Known Center of the Birding Universe

As a contrast to Washington, The City of the Dead, I headed to a point that is directly east, as the fish crow flies, from our Nation’s capital: Cape May, New Jersey. This town is recognized as the oldest beach resort in the United States but I was not here in October for the beaches, unless they contained American oystercatchers or black skimmers, or the hundreds of beautiful Victorian homes that populated the city. Cape May is really for the birds. And that’s what makes a man rent a car, and drive three hours to the end of the Garden State.

American Oyster catcher

Cape May is the mecca for American birding. It is called “the Known Center of the Birding Universe” by Pete Dunne (more about him later). Unlike other migration sites that are surrounded on three sides by water, thus channeling birds, dragonflies, and butterflies to one point, Cape May is flat. The lack of hills or mountains means that you have clear 360 degree views of the migrations happening all around you. At one point you can see monarch butterflies, merlins, Cooper’s hawks, and cormorants and waterfowl in a tight Vs. Every bush and tree seems loaded with warblers, mainly yellow-rumps aka butter butts.

The epicenter of Cape May birding is Cape May Point State Park with it’s own exclamation point: the 157 foot Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859. It does seems to be a beacon to migrating birds and birders alike.

Cpae May

Everywhere you walk in the state park, the lighthouse is always in view. It is the reference point for ships and for birding land migration ( and it also helps you find your way back to the parking lot).

Birding With a Birding Legend

PeteDunne

Every Monday in the fall there is a birding walk sponsored by New Jersey Audubon. The meet up time is 7:30 AM in the parking lot of the birding hotspot know as “The Meadows”. It was not hard to location the leader of the walk, he was the white haired guy in a camo jacket that everyone was standing around. He loudly announced to the crowd: “It’s another good day to be a birder!” This man is Pete Dunne. This man is a bonafided birding legend.

Dunne is credited with putting Cape May on the birding map. Clay and Pat Sutton write in Birds and Birding at Cape May, “Pete Dunne is eponymous with modern birding, and he has helped change bird-watching forever, both at Cape May and elsewhere.” Not only has Dunne done so much for birding, he’s one hell of a birder, the best I’ve ever birded with. Dunne has spent years in the field, looking at birds; telling the difference between a distant green-wing teal from a wood duck from a American black duck flock. This was like the equivalent of kicking the ball around with Pele, sketching with Picasso, or playing guitar with Django.

He is also not the stuffy, social idiot, that keeps his bird knowledge safely locked neath his multi patched bird-nerd vest that you sometimes encounter in the birding community. He is one funny guy willing to share his vast knowledge with everyone within earshot.

We had a grand day out, birding the marshes, trails and beach. A huge mass of ducks took to the air and Dunne directed us to search the skies above for a raptor. I soon spotted a large raptor heading south above the water. “Eagle!” I shouted. The bird turned, took a dive into the ocean ( returned empty taloned), and headed towards us. It was an adult bald eagle!

Later in the day I caught up with Dunne in the Cape May Bird Observatory. He signed two books for me (he’s written over twenty books). Then he said, “Your a damn-good birder.” Wow, I can only hope I can live up to his blessing!

Coda

On the my last day in Cape May before driving back to Washington DC, I birded Cape Map Point one last time. My last bird was the best sighting of the trip. I was on the boardwalk and rounded the corner as Lighthouse Pond came into view. Just above me, 25 yards away was an adult bald eagle, fighting a mean headwind. I got great looks as the eagle seemed to still in the air, finally peeling off to my right to give a group of birders a show. A fitting final bird for a trip to Washington DC.