Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Biggest Week in American Birding!

The Biggest Week in American Birding is coming up!!  May 6-16 this year!

They delayed it a few days this year in hopes of catching a migrating Kirtland's Warbler.

I'll be there. The warblers will be there. All your friends and everyone you know will be there.

Will you be there?

May 6-16 @ Magee Marsh, BSBO headquarters and Maumee Bay State Park.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review: Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record by Errol Fuller

I just received this excellent book in the mail a few days ago and have taken some time to page through it.

Lost Animals by Errol Fuller takes a reminiscent, often evocative approach to telling the tales of some of the most famous, as well as some of the more lesser known species that have gone extinct since 1870. Contained within the 256 pages are the accounts of 28 species of birds and mammals that have been lost in the last 150 years.

Many of the photographs contained in this volume are familiar to readers, but some are truly obscure or have never been published before. There are some truly wonderful treasures included within the pages. They include a recently recovered stash of photos of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, a series of photos of one of the last Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, photos of what is considered the very last Bachman's Warbler ever to be seen alive, the only known photographs of New Zealand's Laughing Owl ever taken in the wild, and a collection of photos of a mother Thylacine and her cubs which have only recently come to light, ninety years after they were taken. Collected together here for the first time, these photos provide a tangible link to animals that have now vanished forever, in a book that brings the past to life while delivering a warning for the future.

The photos, together with the well-written species accounts, including excerpts from writings of the day and reminiscings from firsthand experiences, the book is an excellent piece to have in your library or on your coffee table at home.

Lost Animals: Extinction and the Rhotographic Record
By Errol Fuller
ISBN: 9780691161372
Pub Date: Feb 26, 2014
On sale at Princeton Press for $29.95

In discussing the book via Facebook, I copied a couple excerpts from the book.
I thought it fitting to share them here as well.

This is from the Ivory-billed Woodpecker account:

""The world being full of mystery, there are those who would argue that it is possible-just possible- that the species still survives, but anyone wondering if it does might ask themselves the following series of questions: 

Why should a species plummeting to extinction for more than a century suddenly stop its dreadful downward spiral precisely as it reached the edge of oblivion? 

Why would the dismal pattern of decline stop during the late 1930s just because numbers had dwindled to no more than a few pairs? 

What force is there in nature that would apply a last-minute emergency brake to this headlong rush to disaster and dictate a fierce- yet entirely secretive- rearguard action? 

What conspiracy could there be that would motivate these last few individuals to collectively decide that the decline had gone far enough, and that they owed it to their forebears- and the world at large- to secrete themselves away and surreptitiously breed in small and unnoticeable numbers (all the time in silence) and thus perpetuate their race? 

Why should these last few pairs, and the pitifully few descendants they may have had, be able to withstand the pressures that decimated their fellows, and then linger on- more or less unnoticed- for upwards of half a century? 

What then is left of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? 
apart from stuffed specimens, there are some old photos. There is even a grainy piece of antique nitrose movie film (most of which combusted and was destroyed at Cornell University during the 1960s due to its highly flammable nature). There are a few recordings of the actual call. 

And there was also a race of the species that lived in Cuba and was last seen perhaps as recently as the 1990s, but that is another story."

From the Passenger Pigeon account, an excerpt written by J.J. Audubon in the 1830s:

"Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of "here they come!" 
The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea ... The pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads, were formed on the branches ... Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath .... I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout, to those persons ... nearest to me. The air was literally filled with pigeons, the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow ... pigeons were still passing un-diminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Backpacking Mexico and Belize: A slightly different tropical adventure, Pt 4: Birding Belize: Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

Thousand-foot Falls

It's January here in Wisconsin and I'm dreaming of birding in tropical America. Since I can't get there right now, I'll relate a story of birding there instead.

But quickly, here's the link to all my photos from this trip on Flickr:

Dec 2012:
I'm in the midst of a trip to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and we're about to cross the border into Belize.

Crossing the border into Belize is no easy task.  It costs money. A lot of it.
One thing to understand, when crossing a border in tropical America, there is always a fee of some kind. Sometimes there is more than one fee. Sometimes corrupt officials will try to get you to pay more than the fee so they can bolster their pockets.  In any case, you should find out what the fee is before you get there.   The other catch to crossing into Belize from Mexico is that the border is in no-mans land. On the Mexican side, Chetumal is the closest town.  On the Belizean side, Corozal is the closest town.  That's a distance of several miles between cities, an area in which no buses run.   The main means of transportation across the border is by Taxi.  These are people who easily recognize Americans and attempt to charge them ten times what the actual fee is.   We managed to cross inexpensively by jumping aboard a Collectivo (a van that runs on a flat fee split between all the occupants. the more people, the cheaper it is).  Once in Corozal, we caught a bus to the old Belizean capital, Belize City.

One thing you should know about the Belizean bus system.  It's almost worse than Panama.

These buses are retired American school buses. As such, they are noisy, diesel-spewing and uncomfortable to ride in.  Oh yea, one more thing, there's no such thing as full bus!
One bus we were on was packed beyond standing room only, and we stopped and picked up 5 more people....

Belize City is a typical Central American city. It was the Capital city of Belize until 1961 when hurricane Hattie wiped out 75% of the buildings. It's not too bad by most standards, but not a place you want to spend a lot of time if you like having a wallet with money in it.  The couple hours we spent in Belize City were at the bus station, napping.  We caught the first bus we could that headed westward along the second of only two main highways in Belize.

The bus rides of course were interesting. Traveling from Chetumal to Belize City, we birded our way along, out the bus window.  Water birds were plentiful. Ibis, Herons, Jabiru and Wood Storks, Tropical Kingbirds on the wires, a few hawks here and there. There was always a lot to see.  Tired as we were from traveling, falling asleep often meant missing a good bird (our only Jabiru of the entire trip was out the bus window).

Our trip out of Belize City, westward was mostly uneventful. The lowland scrub and wet savannah habitat held a few birds, but nothing special. We kept a sharp lookout, but failed to see the desired Savannah Hawk.

Our route took us through the new Belizean capital city of Belmopan.
50 miles inland and 250ft above sea-level, Belmopan is much safer from hurricane damage than coastal Belize City, and, at around 20,000 inhabitants, is roughly 1/3 the size of the former Capital.
From there, we caught a bus to the small mountain town of San Ignacio.

San Ignacio is a pretty little village set in a mountain valley with a river flowing between it and its sister city of Santa Elena.  Upon arriving in town, we hired a taxi driver to take us to the rental agency we had rented a car from.   When hiring taxis, one thing that is extremely important is to agree on a price beforehand.  It took a while, but we eventually argued him down from his ridiculous price of $25.
He then proceeded to take us on a ride all over town, bouncing between San Ignacio and Santa Elena, attempting to put on the max amount of miles.  Naturally, the rental place we wanted to go was the very last place we stopped.  He then tried to charge us an exorbitant fee, that we politely declined and paid him what we had originally agreed upon (of course we had to listen to him complain for a while).

After obtaining our rental car, we headed out of town, up into Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve to find a campsite for the night. It took a while to get up to where we were going and it was well after sunset by the time we arrived at Douglas Da Silva.  We drove around a little, scouting, looking for a good place to pitch our tents and finally found one.
The next morning, we awoke to the fresh, cool mountain air and the smell of pine trees.

Our campsite

We explored a little

Perched on a Granite extension of the Maya Mountains, Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve has an interesting history.  It covers just over 100,000 acres and has been somewhat protected for tourism interests.  It's all that's left of an old reserve that covered over a million acres of pine forest.  The predominant tree within the reserve is Honduras Pine interspersed with significant stands of broadleaf forest.   The stories heard from some of the first explorers of the region tell tales of vast spectacular pine forests with tall trees, stretching for miles. This, however, is not the sight that greets visitors today.  In 1949, a wildfire ravaged much of the reserve and destroyed almost all of the trees, almost wiping out the stands of timber.  The forests are slowly regenerating, but are being impeded by infestations of Southern Pine Beetle. Today, the forests are only a shadow of what they once were.  Most of the trees are small and short and more than 85% show signs of the beetle.

Being at tropical latitudes with a subtropical climate, MPR gets an appreciable amount of rain. This often turns the roads to mud, which requires a 4WD vehicle.

Once we packed up our tents, we headed for Caracol along the long, winding road.

Caracol is an ancient Mayan city at the western edge of MPR that was discovered in 1937.
The city was one of the most important regional political centers during the Classic Period.
Now being continuously excavated, it serves as a regional tourist destination.  If you arrive early, before everyone else, you can bird the ruins in relative peace.  The birding is better in the morning anyway. ;)

The road out to Caracol is long and winding, but runs through a beautiful valley, crossing back and forth over a small stream:

The ruins themselves are some of the best we came across during our trip and were our favorite stop.

But let's get to some of the gorgeous birds we saw!  On the way in, we were fortunate enough to come across a few spectacular Scarlet Macaws and a pair of King Vultures!

Birding at the ancient cities is often quite good and often, the best place to be is at the top of the highest pyramid, above the canopy.  We saw more than one Orange-breasted Falcon in this way.
The best thing about the pyramids that were open to climbing is that you can bird at every level of the surrounding forest.  Low canopy found this White-whiskered Puffbird:

Boat-billed Flycatchers were slightly lower:

While Yellow-winged Tanagers were high in the canopy:

After spending most of the day birding Caracol (bird activity started dropping off around noon), we headed out to bird other parts of the reserve.  A stop at the Thousand-foot Falls (photo at the top of this post) added Orange-breasted Falcon to our Belize list.  The views from the overlook were quite spectacular.

That night, we found a random trailhead to pull off on and camped for the night.

The next morning, we explored a slightly different, shorter, scrubbier habitat.  This gave way to Rufous-capped Warbler:

And Rusty Sparrow, possibly my favorite sparrow after Rufous-collared:

A stop at Blancaneaux Lodge for a quick meal (and a rather expensive one) and we explored a few areas for Stygian Owl, without luck.   Returning to the area the next morning got us gorgeous views of the local specialty, Azure-crowned Hummingbird:

Acorn Woodpeckers were fairly common throughout the area:

On our way out, back to San Ignacio, we stopped at a small ravine with a stream running through it. Here, we picked up a couple Woodcreepers, some Euphonias, and this beautiful Royal Flycatcher:

Upon our return to San Ignacio, we returned the rental car, booked a room in a small, inexpensive hotel in town for the night. The small cafe next door provided excellent food for dinner, as well as breakfast the next morning.  Doing a little bit of exploring, we found, to our delight, a small, french-style bakery a few blocks away where we bought fresh bread and pastries for the next few days of traveling.

Belize was good to us. It had gorgeous mountain streams and rivers, spectacular views and waterfalls, lots of awesome birds, and the best part? almost everyone speaks at least some english.  Many locals also speak Spanish, and a good number speak a local Creole dialect that is a combination of words from English, French, Spanish and a couple of native languages. It really is rather interesting to hear spoken.

If you choose to visit Belize, you should keep in mind that it is expensive!
In Belize, there are no chains. That is, there is no Wal-mart, no McDonald's, nothing like what you'd expect in the US.  Belize produces nothing and imports everything, so all goods and food are twice as expensive as they would be otherwise and all stores are run by Orientals. The Belizean Dollar is at two to the American Dollar, so for Americans, everything is half price. This makes the cost of most things come out to about what you would pay if you were in the US.  That goes for hotel rooms too.

So if you go, make sure it's within your budget. Oh, and rent a car. It's much better than trying to get around via the uncomfortable, packed bus system.

Til next time!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

WIYBC field trip on Saturday

Some friends and I recently created the Wisconsin Young Birders Club; a statewide club built by and for YBs.  We are official as of Jan 1st, 2013 and are working to get a website up and provide some field trip opportunities and other fun stuff for WI YBs.

All YBs under 26 years of age are welcome to attend any of our field trips or meetings and any adults who bring a YB with them are also welcome to attend.

Until we get our website up and running, you are welcome to check out our Facebook Page here:

Our April field trip will be held this Sat, Apr 20th and will be to Portage County in central WI.


What: Field trip.
Leader: WIYBC Member Rob Pendergast

Where: Portage County.  Meet at the Prairie Chicken information stand along County W near the intersection with N 120th St, south of Plover.  Google Map:  http://goo.gl/maps/4E0ws

When: 5:30am, Apr 20th, 2013.  The trip will last til early to mid afternoon.
(If you cannot make the early meeting time, let us know and we will work out where you can meet us later.)

Why: to spend the day birding Portage County looking for Greater Prairie-chicken, shorebirds, early passerine migrants and more.

What to bring:
a scope if you own one
a means of transportation (though Carpooling is possible)
Food (sack lunch or whatever you want to eat or snack on)
Camera (if you have one and would like to bring it)
Field guide (we will have some on hand as well)
A positive and enthusiastic viewpoint. ;)

Field trip page is here:

See you there!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Backpacking Mexico and Belize: a slightly different tropical adventure. Pt 3

Vigia Chico Road

We awoke to the raucous screeching of Olive-throated Parakeets overhead.
A Tropical Pewee called from somewhere nearby, Social Flycatchers squealed in the distance, Yucatan Jays called back and forth to each other and Orange Orioles whistled away. An Altimira Oriole soon joined them.  We leaped out of our tents, grabbed the bare necessities for the day and took off through the early morning light.

We barely made it fifteen feet before the Tropical Pewee stopped us in our tracks. Our attention was then distracted by a White-collared Seedeater which led to the discovery of a Yucatan Jay.  As we picked our way back to the road, we quickly discovered more birds, foraging at the woodland edge. We eventually found five species of Orioles; including good looks at the endemic Orange Oriole.
Tropical Gnatcatchers and Spot-breasted Wrens were common as well as the ubiquitous Black Catbird.

Black-throated Green Warbler
There were also a number of North American wood-warblers. Magnolia was the most common, quickly followed by Black-throated Green Warbler.  It was slightly odd, seeing our familiar northern warblers in a tropical climate.

As we walked along the road, a Keel-billed Toucan flew overhead, followed by a couple more.
Canivet's Emeralds whizzed by now and then and Ferruginous Pygmy-owls called almost at every half-mile.

Rose-throated Tanager
Rose-throated Tanager was one endemic that we had hoped to find. It didn't take long.
While picking through Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, a male Rose-throated Tanager popped up. We later saw a female as well.  Red-crowned Ant-Tanager was another good bird that we picked up along the stretch of road, along with more Mangrove Vireos:

Mangrove Vireo

Vigia Chico road was also our first encounter with a hummingbird that I had seen only once previously in southern Texas; Buff-bellied Hummingbird:

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

It was also where I got to see a lifer that I should've seen in Arizona. I thought it interesting how I picked up Rose-throated Becard in Mexico first:

Rose-throated Becard
We walked the few miles down to the lake where we stopped for lunch:

The birding had quieted down by then, but there were plenty of Dragonflies around, like this Brown Setwing:

Brown Setwing

After birding all day, returning back to camp (yes, all our stuff was still there) and crashing for the night, we awoke the next morning and spent some time birding around camp.  That was when we found the highlight of our two days there.  We were walking along a small, narrow trail, when we heard a noise off to one side of the trail and low, rather similar to a frog or insect. While looking for it, we happened upon a bird we though we were going to miss: Yucatan Poorwill!

Yucatan Poorwill

While birding Vigia Chico Road, I also got to see two species of Butterflies that I've been wanting to see for a very long time.  The first being the awesome Zebra Longwing, for sure one of the prettier butterflies of the tropics: 

Zebra Longwing

The other was the spectacularly beautiful Malachite Butterfly!!

Malachite Butterfly

My next post will cover our time in Belize and Tikal.
Til then, Happy Birding!