At the park: 7

let's go outsideThe mergansers appear to be done with nesting for the season; birders on the boardwalk spied a hen with seven merglets feeding on the main pond. The Wood Ducks, on the other hand, are still hard at work slow-cooking their eggs. We have five active nests, including (unfortunately) a dump nest with 22 eggs in it.

Aloft, we saw a mini-kettle of three Red-shouldered Hawks picking up altitude. We heard or saw a couple of heron species, gnatchatchers, cuckoos, flycatchers, and vireos, but generally didn’t pause to take closer looks. On the walk back through the woods, Myra and I paused over a perplexing male tanager (most likely a Scarlet), along with a female; the male showed lots of streaky orange.

There are noticeably fewer Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) in the main wetland this year, so perhaps whatever control measures are in force are being effective.

At the park: 6

Well, I thought that the big splash of the morning would be the Wood Duck nest that has been started in the new box hard by the boardwalk, the one that is easy to see but hard to walk to through the cattails and brambles. But other events were brewing. The park staff had designated today Wetlands Awareness Day.

Myra and I worked the upper wetland and then came down to lower Banyard Run. I came up to box #62 and carefully opened the box from the side. I spied the white teardrop-eye of a female Wood Duck. Now when we unintentionally find a hen in a box, she is just as likely to flush through the side door as she is through the entrance hole at the front of the box. So I took a step backwards, in case she went for that route, with optional gut evacuation. I stepped back, and then my world turned into a slow-motion backfall into a foot of water and six inches of mud, as I uttered imprecations all the way down.

Paul (nursing a recently-sutured foot) and Myra were sympathetic, but there isn’t much you can do to help out a guy who’s just found his own awareness of the wetland in the seat of his jeans. I splodged back to the parking area. At least the water wasn’t early-March cold the way it was the last time that I fell in.

Most of my gear is air-drying or in the laundry. Too soon to tell whether my optics suffered any permanent damage.

Why is it that this sort of thing never happens to Annie Dillard?

Lafayette trip report: 3

I closed out my field trips at the convention with a bang on Sunday, riding a van driven by Donna Dittmann and Steve Cardiff into Jeff Davis, Calcasieu, and Cameron Parishes west of town. We hit the farmland (much of it in rice) and refuge impoundments and saw a surprising variety of birds from various families, some of them I expected and some that I didn’t—American Coot (Fulica americana) (known locally as the “Ivory-Billed Gallinule”), the spectacularly-plumed Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), shorebirds, waders, Dickcissel (Spiza americana), grackles, larids, and the “wow” bird of the trip, Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway). We saw phalaropes doing their signature spinning; stilts on the nest; a mixed flock of cormorants, ibis, spoonbills, and egrets scaring up food; a nighthawk hunkered down on a fencepost; Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibia) actually hanging out with cattle. Donna pointed out some remnants of damage from Hurricane Rita, but we remained 30 miles inland or so, so we didn’t see the evidence that Amy Hooper witnessed on her field trip to the coast. The casualty of the trip was the tripod mount from my scope, which shattered (probably as a result of my abuse), but it’s all good, ’cause the mount never worked that well for me. I exceeded my best expectations for lifers for the whole convention, crashing through the 350-species milestone to end at #357.

looking for warblersWe spent the day before east of Lafayette in the Atchafalaya Basin. We scraped up some warblers and my target bird for the trip, Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), on a walk led in part by Jim Delahoussaye, who lives along the river. (I first saw this bunting in a movie (maybe it was one of the Batman flicks), and when I saw this impossible-looking bird, colored with blocks of green and cherry red and electric blue, I figured that I must be looking at CGI effects.)

fire antsJim helped illustrate why you don’t want to step on the fire ant mounds.

on the bayouThen it was on to the water in a flotilla of three gas-powered flatboats. I didn’t see anything new here, though someone eared a Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus). But, as my seatmate Dick put it, this part of the trip was “kinda touristy, but cool.” Our destination, such as it was, was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest. When boatman Jacques finally cut the engine, the stillness was so deep that we could hear the eagle vocalizing.

I got lucky and had great weather for the whole trip, in the sense that I wasn’t birding in the rain or in a 30-knot gale. The storms that blew through came on our off day. The hardcore among us took the frontal movement as a cue to hare off into Cameron Parish hoping for a fallout. And the mosquitoes behaved themselves!

On Friday, David Sibley presented on the confusions, delusions, and self-fulfilling expectations of field ID, and told some entertaining war stories, including one about the time that he identified a bit of red flagging tied to a barbed-wire fence as a Vermilion Flycatcher. My subtitle for the talk would be, “Why You May Not Want to Scramble Off to Delaware Every Time Someone Reports a Rarity on the Hotline.”

The highlight of Friday’s chalk talks was a short presentation by Keith Ouchley of the Nature Conservancy on the natural provinces of coastal Louisiana—the alluvial valley (a/k/a bottomland hardwood forest), the savannah-like longleaf pine forest, and the coastal prairies and marshes. Each has been transformed in its own way by agroforestry, as the tallgrass prairie has been converted to rice and sugar cane farming; the pine woods planted in faster-growing loblolly pine; and the alluvial region literally burned to make room for soybeans. We learned that Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis), a pine woods specialist, is responding to artificial nest cavities built into the trunks of trees.

Lafayette trip report: 2

lunch breakTuesday morning our bus departed at 6:00 for Iberia Parish and the coastal wetland habitat of Lake Fausse (pronounced like the choreographer) Pointe State Park, followed by a visit to Avery Island, the site of a managed heron rookery (lots of puffball Great Egret chicks) and the McIlhenny family’s Tabasco sauce plant. I picked up my first lifer for the trip, Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) while most of the bus was checking out the gift shop. Also feeding young, on the water, were a pair of Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus). Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a regional specialty, and we got up close and personal looks both on Tuesday and Thursday.

One of the things a convention is meant to do is charge you up to continue doing what you’ve been doing, and the workshops on Wednesday by Andy Farnsworth and Brian Sullivan, both with the ornithology lab at Cornell, did just that. Brian’s presentation on technology and birding touched on some of the cool gadgets that we birders with too much disposable income can play with (the Zeiss integrated spotting scope and digital camera is so tempting), and then segued into sources of information on the web (more in a later post) and eBird, Cornell’s web-powered bird observation listing application. eBird’s not-so-hidden agenda is data collection for research purposes, and I left with a mild resolution to start using it to record my Huntley Meadows visits, in the same way that I report nest box activity with the allied app for cavity nesting. But the app is lacking the capacity to export trip reports as URLs (although Brian told me that there’s interest in adding this feature); once Cornell does this, they’ll join the ranks of other players in the social software arena.

Andy Farnsworth covered two areas of his research, monitoring bird migrations using WSR-88D weather radar and by recording flight calls. He talked about all the things that can show up on radars that are neither weather nor birds, like “aerial plankton” (dust, smoke, insects) and sunset, which at the right time of day looks like back-scattered radiation. I found his segment on flight calls particularly interesting, because it was the first time I’d taken the time to look at a sound spectrogram while I’m listening to a vocalization. And since flight calls are briefer (as short as 0.02 sec) and simpler in structure, it’s easier to match sight and sound. Andy indicated that you want to look at the strong central trace of a spectrogram and discount the fainter overtones above and below it (on the other hand, the Eastern Bluebird chip that he played seemed to get its melodic character from the fainter traces in the spectrogram). A buzzy call will show regular variation in the frequency domain, perhaps 1kHz up and down each 1-5 msec. These are the calls we like to call “zeeps”, while the “seeps” stay on one pitch.

Thursday’s field trip took us past the oil refineries, chemical plants, and paper mills of Baton Rouge, up Highway 61, into West Feliciana Parish and the Tunica Hills, glacier-formed uplands (we stopped before we got to Angola and the state pen). We alighted at Oakley Plantation, once a home of John J. Audubon, and Mary Ann Brown Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property. Oakley was particularly pleasant, still cool and dripping from the cold front that blew through Wednesday bringing thunderstorms. Off by myself while most of us scattered to take the house tour or check out the gardens, I got a good look at a Red-headed Woodpecker and all too quick a look at a gray-over-yellow warbler that I couldn’t ID. Similarly, at Brown Preserve, the group saw a waterthrush that our leader ID’d as Louisiana, but I didn’t feel like I’d seen enough of the field marks to tick it. The last planned stop of the trip at Sherburne WMA was nearly a complete washout, as poor scouting on someone’s part left our motor coach unable to get over a steep railroad grade crossing.

Lafayette trip report: 1

Greetings from Lafayette, Miss., in the heart of Cajun country, where I am attending the 2007 American Birding Association convention (while Leta house sits back home).

I made the drive down from Reston on Sunday and Monday, with little in the way of mishap. The only construction delays that I encountered came in the vicinity of Cleveland, Tenn., and I noticed something happening there that you never see back home. The merge down to one lane was out of sight, over a couple of hills and around a curve, but no sign was posted to let us know which lane was going to be dropped. Yet all of us politely started lining up in the left lane: some of us, the locals, must have known which lane was closed, while we long-distance travelers figured, “everyone else knows to get in the left lane, so I will, too.” There was no pushing ahead to the merge point, with a line forming for last-minute move-overs. (I say, “all of us,” but there were a few exceptions, including an impatient Greyhound bus.)

Two smells along the drive, both of them overpowering: first, in a couple of stretches in the Shenandoah Valley, the stench of dairy farms (I’ll remember this stink the next time I’m in the butter-and-egg aisle in the supermarket); second, from Laurel, Miss. southward, blasts of perfume from a white-flowering shrub that is in full bloom here already. (There seems to be some confusion about how to identify this plant, which smells like honeysuckle: one trip leader has named it Rough-leaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii.) (Update: Privet (genus Ligustrum) is probably the correct ID, based on the fragrance match. Trip leader Virginia, who has lived down here, loathes the smell.)

The verges were carpeted with a number of unfamiliar wildflowers, purple, blue, golden, masses of something cloverish with a maroon flower.

Both Alabama and Louisiana’s respective transportation departments should be persuaded to pick a different shield design to designate their state highways. They currently use modifications of the state’s map outlines, with crummy-looking results. Louisiana simplifies the outline by cutting off all the wiggly bits along the Gulf Coast, so we’re left with what looks like a fabricator’s mistake. Alabama’s crime against design is to stretch the outline horizontally to accommodate 3-digit route numbers: Washington state with a burst appendix. And while we’re at it, both Alabama and Mississippi use the state outline for their buckle-up signs, and since the outlines are close to mirror images, it looks like one engineer copied off another’s exam bluebook.

If you would drive cross-country, you would do well to develop a taste for country music, classic rock, and contemporary Christian (which combines the worst features of both). But I did find a couple of fresh college stations around Charlottesville and Baton Rouge, and a great R&B station in Hattiesburg, in what they call the Pine Belt.

(Since I’m reading Agee and Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I was expecting to see long and wide stretches of cotton farms as I rolled south. Instead, I found mile on mile of pine plantations. Generally, the forestry company is smart and leaves a buffer of uncut pine and hardwood understory between the road and the patch that has just been logged. Much better PR than rubbing our noses in the clearcut.)

Anyway, FM radio with Dead Kennedys, obscurer Janis Joplin, and Elvis Costello singing Little Feat with Alain Toussaint: it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’m not sure when I’m going to get to post this, because our hotel’s idea of “available Wi-Fi” means “available for $10 a day.” I may be stuck trying to look up local businesses the old school way, with The Phone Book.

Bioblitz!

Via Botany Photo of the Day comes word of the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz. In honor of National Wildlife Week, April 21 – 29, participants

… from across the country will choose a wild or not-so-wild area and find how many of each different species—plant, animal, fungi and anything in between—live in a certain area within a certain time.

At the park: 4

Paul has done a good job of recruiting new volunteers for the nest box program this year. Christine joined us last week, and Warren and Lisa yesterday. They were rewarded, so to speak, with the job of chopping through quarter-inch ice on Barnyard Run in order to get to the midstream boxes. They also scratched through the brambles surrounding the site of old box 79, which we replaced.

We’ve found eggs in five boxed so far, but one or two of these nests may be stalled (due to the cold snap) or already abandoned.

At the park: 3

We replaced box 67, and since we had another box made, we decided to work next week to replace box 79, which we had abandoned to the field mice a few seasons ago. (This despite my opinion that the box will not be used, and is too difficult to get to through the vegetation and mucky marsh bottom.) Lots of ducks stopping by on their way through: shovelers, two kinds of teal, pintails. Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) have arrived for the breeding season.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Fighting off a case of the flu, I took an overnight trip with Leta to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay to see the eagles. The weather was fine for our morning field trip. We got a quick look at a group of Delmarva Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger cinereus) in the tall, sparse pines traversed by the Woods Trail. As for birds, we ticked 20+ species, including three species of raptors, a stock-still Hermit Thrush and, far out on the water, a cluster of about 15 American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Alas, we were too late in the season for easy looks at Snow Geese. Since the last time that I visited, the refuge has added a second story to the visitor center, with spotting scopes trained on the eagles’ resting snags. This new space has good interpretative material and some nice mounted specimens of ducks and raptors.

Fox Farm-Snead Farm Loops

TrailsideI took a quick holiday hike on the Blue Ridge: Hike #1 in PATC’s Circuit Hikes in Shenandoah National Park: two loops joined at the middle, descending into Fox Hollow and climbing Dickey Hill. The air was chilly (although warm for the season), especially starting out, with a little wind behind it, so I took the 5.0 miles at a brisk 2-hour pace. My altimeter showed the elevation change to be an easy 750 feet, not the 1000 feet cited in the Guide. The footing was a little slick in places, due to recent rains on the autumn’s leaf litter. Nothing out of the ordinary for bird life: winter mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, small woodpeckers, cardinals; a cluster of juncos taking the waters at an intermittent stream draining Snead Farm; and an occasionally-heard Pileated Woodpecker. And perhaps the best part of the trip: the trailhead is less than 90 minutes by car from my front door.

My notes from a September, 1999 field trip record a Ruffed Grouse along the power line cut that is Snead Farm Road.