20 September 2008

I'm Your Wing Man

I saw one of the most amazing things today, and there's not a single witness who can prove it.

I was early for my 3:00 hike at Savage Neck Dunes, a trail leading through an evergreen dune forest to the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Like an hour early. And I am not a patient person when there are birds to be watched. So instead of waiting around for the rest of the group, I headed out on my own. No single decision I've made on this trip has worked out more in my favor than that one.

The trail leading down to the beach is sandy and close to a mile long, and at about the 3/4 point I had made up my mind that I wasn't heading back to meet the group at 3:00. I'd come his far, I don't need their help ID'ing the birds, so I just went. Well, part of that backfired, as a small group of shorebirds I watched had 2 species I knew and 1 that I didn't. So I missed out on that, but . .

As I watched this group of Sanderlings, Semipalmated Plovers, and the mystery birds foraging on a small section of beach, I got annoyed with my inability to ID the third species. Determined, I kept staring at them, until all at once all ten or twelve birds flew away. Hoping I could use in-flight field marks to help ID the mystery bird, I kept my binoculars trained on one of them as it flew horizontal to the shoreline.

Then, out of nowhere, I saw the reason for their abrupt departure. From my left, a juvenile Merlin came racing into view, doing his best to chase down this mystery bird. The chase went on for nearly a minute, which doesn't sound like much, but to a falcon is a very long time. They went back and forth along the shore line, maneuvering back and forth in a way any jet fighter pilot would be envious of. Repeatedly, the Merlin would make his attack, the small bird would swerve at the last second to avoid him, and it would start again. I am amazed by the speed of these animals, as well as their agility. This was nothing short of a scene from Top Gun. Finally, the Merlin gave up, and the shore bird flew down the shoreline to rejoin his flock. The first thought that went through my mind (after "Holy crap did that really just happen?") after putting the binoculars down was "Sometimes it pays to be impatient!"

Overall, on the day, I added 3 new birds to my Big Year list . . Semipalmated Plover, Great Horned Owl (that's right baby, owl #2!), and Black-throated Blue Warbler. I've got another trip tonight to search for more owls, and my final trip of the weekend is tomorrow morning. I'll be packing up before the trip in the morning, so you most likely won't see a wrap-up post until Monday. I truly enjoy camping, but I also long for my bed. There's just no substitute for a good night's sleep.

Wish me shorebirds tomorrow morning, and a safe drive home. I hope your weekend's been as fruitful as mine!

19 September 2008

New Birds at Every Turnstone

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. That pun has been in my head since the moment I laid eyes on a group of Ruddy Turnstones at the pier in Cape Charles tonight.

I showed up at 6:00 for the reception, which had been moved from the theater to the art gallery next door. We got preempted by, of all things, a showing of High School Musical that apparently took precedence over the large group of money-spending tourists that had travelled to town for the Birding and Wildlife Festival. It wasn't a big deal to me really . . I'm not much of a mingler, anyway. The plan was that we'd leave the gallery at 6:45 and walk 4 blocks to the local Presbyterian church, where Pete Dunne would deliver his keynote address. Me? I left the gallery at around 6:20, right after a few plates of cheese and fruit, and headed down to the beach. That, of course, is when I discovered the Ruddy Turnstones, as well as this precursor to a sunset.

A few minutes before 7:00 I made my way to the church, which was quite possibly one of the ugliest houses of worship I've ever laid eyes on. I mean I know God doesn't care and all, but for Pete's sake, the curtains look like you cut them out of Grandma's old couch, and the white wicker backdrop with Christmas lights intertwined and large gold balls atop the posts have just got to go.

Anyway, Mr. Dunne gave a really engaging speech titled "25 things that changed birding". I felt bad leaving before he was finished, but I had an Owl "Hoot" to get to, and I didn't want to be late.

What's that they say about "The best laid plans of mice and men"? Yeah, I was the mice tonight. I got to the location for our outing at about 8:50, as did another couple. We sat in the dark and waited patiently for more than half an hour, at which point we decided to just call it a night. They left, and I decided to take one more shot at an owl. There was another "hoot" going on just a quarter of a mile away, and I was going to attempt to join it. Keep in mind, it's pitch dark, I have no flashlight (I opened my cell phone and used it, actually), and I have no idea where the trails go. Luckily, I could see the flashlights of the other birders in the group and I was able to catch up with them. Less than 20 minutes later and Eastern Screech Owl responded to a recorded call, and I spotted it flying into a tree just above the path. The guide shone his red spotlight on the tiny bird, and I was able to get a really good look at him. It was a cute little bird, far smaller than what you envision when you think "owl". I guess I just always picture the big majestic owls like the Snowy or Great Grey. Nonetheless, he looked at us for a moment, then turned and flew away. It was fleeting, but dammit it counts.

I'm off tomorrow morning early, with a walk at a private home at 7:30 am. The property has apparently been in the same family for close to 250 years, and it's been conserved beautifully. Let's hope tomorrow yields me another 13 new birds like today did. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

18 September 2008

11 New Species Added

I added 11 new species to my Big Year list today, and it's barely 4:00 . . dayum!

I woke up early this morning, at around 5:00, and could not go back to sleep. My phone had died during the night, and when I plugged it in I couldn't get a signal. Uneasy about being out of touch with the family, I decided just to shower before the rush (ha ha, just kidding, there are a total of about 11 people camping in this entire mammoth facility) and get started. With events not starting until 9:00, I decided just to bird the campground. I stuck to the area in the general vicinity of my tent and just birded a big loop. The camp site itself is in a big stand of old-growth pine trees, and just to the North is a small cove, and the Chesapeake is beyond the cove. I chased songbirds through the trees with very little luck, as the sun hadn't fully lit the tree tops yet, and then headed up toward the sound of the Canada Geese squawking in the cove. When I arrived they flew out, along with 6 or 7 Great Blue Herons. I saw a Great Egret fishing, and in one of the dead trees along the shore I spotted two Northern Flickers, one actually hammering at the tree like a typical woodpecker would. I found that behavior only slightly odd, as they are, after all, a type of woodpecker. I've only ever seen them forage on the ground though, so it gave me pause.

On my way back to the tent site I saw a big mixed flock of sparrows and warblers foraging on the ground. They let me get unusually close for really good looks, and I even captured a few of them. In all I saw Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-throated Warblers, Pine Warblers, Palm Warblers, and a single Black-and-white Warbler. Pretty good for 7:00 in the morning. Of the group, only the Palm Warbler was a new bird for me.

Above, the Yellow-throated Warbler.

And the Palm Warbler.

And the Pine Warbler.

After a quick breakfast I drove into Cape Charles to seek out the festival headquarters I was so woefully unable to locate the night before. After asking a jogger and a mechanic that were of absolutely no help, I finally located a local restaurateur who was able to direct me to the fire station, where the event would kick off from. That was a great example of a time where leaving early really paid off. I got my packet-o-materials, organized my directions and got everything situated, and then it was off to the first field trip of the day. 25 of us loaded up on a school bus and headed to Fisherman's Island NWR, near the end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-tunnel-bridge-tunnel-bridge.

When we got to the island and got out of the bus, the first bird an of us saw was a majestic Bald Eagle, hovering over the marsh in front of us. He was quickly joined by numerous vultures, Osprey, and a Northern Harrier. A few steps down the path and we added Broad-winged Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk to the tally.

There were some songbirds as well, including an American Redstart and a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We made our way down the sandy trail to the beach, and the view was pretty incredible.

Along the beach we saw a majority of the new birds I was able to add to today's list. Most interesting of the group was a Black Skimmer, Sanderling, Royal Tern, and Forster's Tern. I also added 3 gulls to the list, but quite frankly gulls bore me to death, so we're not going to talk about them. This next photo is a Sanderling, which is a really cute little black and white shorebird that has a habit of chasing breaking waves up the beach to uncover invertibrates to eat. They were fun to watch.

There were also quite a few of these little Ghost Crabs on the beach. I wanted to pick one up and bring it home to Lily, but the lady from the park services department scolded me, so I decided not to. Plus, I worried it would stink up my car.

We made our way back to the bus, stopping along the way to try to lure more warblers out of the trees, but the windy conditions (gusts in excess of 30 miles per hour) kept the songbirds out of sight.

After a quick pit stop and lunch, which consisted of a chef salad from the Food Lion deli, it was off to Kiptopeke (KIP-toe-peek) State Park for an hour at the hawk observation platform. Two species I really hoped to add on this trip were Merlin and Peregrine Falcon, and another birder reported seeing both of them at that location just yesterday. As it turns out, my luck wasn't quite so good. We did see 8 Merlins, as well as 8 American Kestrels and a Sharp-shinned Hawk fly by, but no Peregrines. Truth be told, the looks at the Merlins were pretty disappointing, as the birds were flying at about 60 miles per hour over our heads from North to South, not bothering to stop and pose for photos. Rude ass birds.

Overall I'd call it a pretty successful first 2/3 of a day. The "Official" opening reception, with a keynote address by noted birder Pete Dunne, is scheduled for 6:00 tonight, a little more than an hour from now. Afterwards I'm signed up to go on an owl and bat "hoot" at 9:00, which I hope yields more owls than bats. I've still got a grand total of zero owls on my Big Year list, and this will certainly be one of my only opportunities for nocturnal birding for the rest of the year. So that's all for now, look for updates either tonight or tomorrow afternoon, as sleep will once again determine the schedule.

Day 0.5

My drive up to Virginia this morning was as uneventful as one would hope. The best part was the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which should actually be renamed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel-Bridge-Tunnel-Bridge, as that's the true order of the structures one must travel to reach the other end. Every single lamp post on the bridges was adorned by at least a single gull. I'm terrible at identifying gulls, so I have no idea what kind they were. I did see a Double-crested Cormorant, 2 Osprey, and some sort of tern on the bridge too, but they're hard to ID at 60mph.

After checking in at Cherrystone Camping Resort and heading over to my tent site I began to hear an unfamiliar bird "talking" nearby. I looked around and saw 3 of these little Brown-headed Nuthatches going in and out of this tree cavity, a mere 4 feet from my car! Add that to the incredible number of egrets, herons, and vultures I've seen since hitting the peninsula, and I think this might end up being a very birdie weekend.

Today wasn't a full day at the festival. In fact, it couldn't even be counted as a half day. The "kickoff" events, hosted by the town of Onancock, VA (pronounced ah-NAN-cock, at least by the one person I heard actually risk saying it), were nothing spectacular. From the look of their "tent", they didn't put a lot into the kickoff, save for inviting the Virginia Beach Wildlife Resources people out for a short flightless-raptor demonstration.

The rest of the events today centered around bringing revenue to their quaint little town, which was actually quite cute.

The buildings have a lot of charm and character, and the residents were, well, characters. I'll put it this way . . the only place you're gonna see more granola is Ithaca, NY. This place is CRUNCHY! No worries though, everyone I encountered was very friendly, including this woman in the red, who interviewed me for the local newspaper. I guess I just looked like an easy mark. Ooh, and I can't forget the humanity. Anytime Mandi and I see something that's just grossly misplaced, we cry out "Oh the humanity!" If she was here, I promise you she would have called this one first. I mean seriously . . you really wore that shirt?

There were lots of kids running around the little park playing during the demonstration, and one in particular made me really miss Lily. She was sick this morning when I left, and as of this posting is still not feeling well. I'll bet you can't guess why this kid made me think about her?

I left the raptor demonstration a little bit before it was over in search of food. I found a Subway nearby in a dilapidated strip mall then headed back to my campsite. My plan was to stop in Cape Charles (I assume none of you need a pronunciation key on that one) before dark to get my bearings, as that is where the events will embark from tomorrow morning. As is the case with most of these towns, there's really just one main area where anything could go on, so after cruising the "downtown" of Cape Charles I headed out to the beach. My intention was to scope out gulls and shorebirds, but it quickly turned into a photography session.

I haven't attempted to ID these birds yet. That obviously was not the point of the first photo. I did see another tern fly right past my head, but I couldn't ID it because I was taking a photo at the time. He was much smaller than the gulls, had the long forked tail, and was mostly white. I'll check out the field guide tomorrow morning.

There was a really cute family picnicking and swimming at the beach. I couldn't resist this shot of the little boy playing in the gentle surf of the Chesapeake Bay. Later, his dad had me take a family shot of them with his Canon. I was hopelessly lost with anything other than my Nikon. He set it for me, and I think the shot turned out well. They were a really cute family, and the dad thanked me for my services with a crisp new million-dollar-bill with Ronald Reagan's face on it. Who does he think he is, the FED?

This group of guys was enjoying some afternoon volleyball on the beach. Aside from the family, these guys, and myself, the beach was empty for as far as the eye could see. You ain't in Jersey anymore!

Before heading back to camp I took what seemed like a hundred pictures of the sun setting over the bay. Apparently it was only 14 or so. Regardless, here are my two favorites. I took a series where the sun appeared to "melt" into the water as it set, but I'm going to put a slideshow together with them at a later date. Enjoy these, and check back for an update tomorrow, after Day 1.

Oh, and in case you're wondering . . I'm blogging from inside my tent. Seriously. My tent site is right behind the "Cafe", which offers free wireless internet. I have had no trouble picking up a signal from anywhere at the site, so I come to you tonight from inside the bug-free confines of my tent. Ain't technology grand?

Hitting the road

I'm leaving in approximately one hour, heading Northeast through North Carolina and over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge into Southeastern Virginia. My destination, of course, is the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival, as I mentioned in a post last month. I plan to blog from the festival, hoping to include stories and photos of the flocks of migrating songbirds, shorebirds, and raptors that are expected at the festival. Unfortunately there will be no photos, videos, or stories about Avery or Lily to look forward to from the weekend, as I'm leaving them behind with Mandi and the camera is of course coming with me. I've been looking forward to this trip for quite a while, hopefully it lives up to my expectations.

16 September 2008

The Tooth Fairy Returns

It seems these days that the thing that sparks Avery's imagination above all else is the Tooth Fairy. She's been talking for weeks about a molar that's been loose. Sunday afternoon as we were sitting in traffic it finally popped all the way out. I was a bit shocked when she showed me, as it was not tooth-colored, but rather a nice shiny silver one. As much money as that crown surely cost, it was about to cost another dollar.

The traffic was bad, so by the time we arrived home I'd forgotten about the tooth. An hour or so later as she was getting ready for bed Avery reminded me by asking, "Corey, do you think the Tooth Fairy will come tonight, or was it too late?"

"I'm not sure Ave, I guess it just depends how busy she was this weekend." I ALWAYS leave myself an out.

I remember thinking about making the exchange before bed that night, but it completely escaped me until 5:30 Monday morning. As Mandi left for work I remembered to get her last dollar from her wallet. Knowing I had at least half an hour until Avery woke up, I went upstairs with the money and opened her door. As I tiptoed in I noticed the note was tucked in neatly next to the tooth pouch. In my most clandestine effort to retrieve the pouch I brushed the paper, and the sound caused her to stir. I abandoned the mission and quickly closed the door, making my way across the hall and out of sight. I was not ready to have this particular rouse exposed.

At around 6:30 that same morning, having eaten her breakfast and informed me of the Tooth Fairy's failure to appear, Avery asked me "Corey, was that you in my room this morning?"

"Umm, yeah."

"What were you doing in there?"

Talk about having your feet held directly over the flame . . "Umm, I came in to wake you up for school but then I realized it was a little too early, so I just let you sleep in."

Sometimes her gullibility is an asset in disguise. "Oh, OK", she said. And that was that.

Fast forward to Monday night. Avery is a very private person, and as such she always closes her bedroom door all the way at night. Not wanting to give away my presence by the sound of the latch clicking, I tried to figure a way to get it open as she was falling asleep. My strategy? Use Lily. Lily was heading to bed just moments after Avery, and she wanted to go in and give her big sister a ni-night kiss. Seeing an opportunity to get the door open, I coalesced. In a stroke of complete luck, Avery had already dozed off when Lily opened the door, so we slowly backed away and I left the door cracked. Now, it's on.

About an hour later, as my interest in Monday Night Football was waning and my eyelids grew heavy, I made my way over to Avery's door. I had a hall light on that shone just enough indirect light into the room for me to navigate, without disturbing Avery's sleep. I approached the pillows and this time noticed that the tooth pouch was front and center, but that the letter had been pushed back too far for me to risk reaching for it. I made the lightning-quick exchange of cash for crown, replaced the pouch at the edge of the bed, and hauled ass. The note would have to go unread for the night. My only concern was that in discovering the Tooth Fairy's oversight, Avery would abandon the note and possibly throw it away. Thankfully, she left it for me. Here it is in all its green-inked glory. A typed transcript of the note will follow the picture, just for ease of reading. I fixed a few key typos just so it's understandable.

Dear Toothfairy, I loved the note that you sent me last time. Do you realy live in fairyland? Do you go to sleep? If you do when? Are you smaller or bigger than that note? Is there a fairy post ofice? Do you have different pairs of clothes? Are you an expert about teeth? OK I have asked a lot but can you send me another note? I love you sending me notes its just so cool. How far away is fairyland? OK I'm done but this time can you please leave me a drawing or something of you? Thank you for your time and I have two more loose ones so I bet I'll see you soon. Have a safe trip. Love, Avery p.s. Can you please leave a note and money here too? Thank you.

I don't think any more is required from me. Jaime, I'd like to enlist your help once again, if you're so inclined.