Friday, February 28, 2014

Feb 28 (Day 59) - Snail Kite Lifer!

Today marks the end of my second month on the road. Both have been incredibly successful. Birds have been plentiful, people have been friendly, and I have stayed incredibly healthy. I really could not have asked for a better start to the trip. I rode 1404 miles this month compared to 965 in January. I also added 88 species to the 127 I saw in January for a total of 215. March will be a lighter riding month, and I expect the species total to plateau for a while after a another big burst of species in the next ~10 days. The next big burst of birds after that will be in Texas in mid-April. 

I cut west/inland to search for Snail kite today

I have done a tone of riding to finally reach what I have been calling in my own head "The Bird Zone". At this time of year, most of the Florida specialties collapse into the southern part of the state. It has taken a TON of riding to get this far south, but today I started to reap the rewards of this riding. I found several Florida specialities including my lifer Snail kite (#213).  I have looked for this bird on a number of previous occasions only to be denied each time. Until today, this was certainly one of my nemesis birds. I actually found 4 birds at Loxahatchee Slough (not the NWR) today. I think there were 2 adult males, 1 adult female, and 1 juvenile. As I said, its the first time I've seen these birds in the field, so I am quite possibly mistaken. I was able to photograph 3 of these birds. The midday light was tough, but I think I made it work in the last 2 shots.

**Click thumbs for bigger images**

Juvenile or Female Snail Kite 

Very heavy crop of adult male Snail kite - 
banded no less!

An adult-ish Snail Kite  -
Not completely charcoal yet

The habitat where I found the kites. This was taken a bit 
later in the day so the colors are nicer. The kites didn't 
come in close like they did earlier in the day - bummer.

Snail kites are a federally endangered species. As of 2014, there are thought to be around 400 breeding pairs left in the state. There are, however, additional populations of the birds in Central and South America. The Snail kite feeds almost exclusively on Apple snails which are found throughout South Florida in freshwater environs. As humans have altered these freshwater habitats, the population of Apple snails has also fluctuated. As is always the case, these seemingly small perturbations at the bottom of the food chain are magnified as one moves up towards the apex predators like the Snail kite. Thus, the fate of the Snail kite is inextricably tied to the status of the Apple snail. There is some evidence that they will eat other types of snail which may benefit them moving forward. You can read about that here. The long, hooked beak of the kite has evolved as a tool to pry captured snails from their shells. This is certainly a very cool bird.

As for other birds, there certainly was not a shortage of them. I also tallied Crested caracara (#210) and Northern rough-winged swallow (#211) on my ride west this morning (I took this big detour west to get away from the coast and into the freshwater areas preferred by the Snail Kite). Limpkins (#212), and 3 Swalow-tailed kites (#214) cruised right over my head as I was looking at the first of the 4 Snail kites! Since I had the camera out for the Snail kites, I was able to capture one of the Swallow-taileds as it flew over. These birds are some of the first spring migrants to return to South Florida (Snail kites are permanent residents). The last new bird of the day was a bit of a surprise as I heard a Barred owl (#215) hooting away in mid afternoon. 

The aptly named Swallow-tailed kite 

Today turned out to be a magnificent day. The weather was perfect, and I did a paltry 60 miles on the bike (50 from Stuart to North Palm beach, 7 looking for Snail kites, and 3 for a water bottle I forgot at a rest stop). There will be much more birding in the next few days, and I expect the new species to keep piling up. Finding the kite today is a a huge weight off my shoulders. Given how hard I have previously looked for this bird and failed to find it, nailing it down so easily today is a huge bonus for me. Tomorrow I am going to head to the Green Cay and Wakodahatchee Wetland areas which are located a bit south of here.  

There has beens some good thinking happening on the bike as well, and I will share some of these thoughts as they develop a bit more. Most of what I think about centers on how I want to construct my life moving forward. As these thought move beyond their embryonic stages I will be sure to share them.

Loggerhead shrike bonus shot!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Feb 27 (Day 58) - No birding, just riding. Banded red knot update!

My binoculars did not come out of their case today. I think this is a first for the trip. Like yesterday, the forecast today called for rain most of the day, and, like yesterday, that rain never materialized. I generally forgo birding in favor of riding on days with bad forecasts. Riding in the rain feels great while birding in the rain is less than pleasant. Sun and associated higher temperatures make birding the favored activity. So, unfortunately, I do not have anything terribly exciting to share today. I did cover 84 miles today. I had a nice tailwind which helped push me along. This continuing north wind is great for me at the moment since it not only pushes me south but also brings cooler temperatures with it. Tomorrow I am going to spend some time searching for Snail kite in an inland area. Tomorrow will be the first in a series of birding heavy days, so I hope to have some more exciting news for you then. I've given my body a rest day now and then, and today I'm going to give my brain a day off from blogging. I am going to handle a bunch of administrative duties that I have been neglecting instead.

Also, I received a certificate for reporting the banded Red Knot from Sullivan's Island, South Carolina (Day 46 - Feb 15). It turns out this bird was banded in this same area two years prior. Maye (s)he'll return to this same area next year!

Red Knot 94X in action!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Feb 26 (Day 57) - 5 new birds w/ photos, thoughts on sharing feeder birds

Originally forecast as a soggy, unpleasant day, today turned out to be great from both weather and birds standpoints. My plan was to cover 82 miles with a break at the midpoint for some midday birding. I had arranged to visit Danny Bales at his house in Titusville to look for the Clay-colored sparrow that has been visiting his feeders daily since December 9. I recall looking at the Florida bird posts several weeks ago and wondering if this bird would stick around until I reached the area. As if summoned by Danny just for my arrival, the bird appeared within 5 seconds of when I walked through the front door; Year bird #205 was a cinch! With that taken care of, it was now time to relax and just feeder watch for a while.  Danny has a very nice backyard feeder array. It it very easy to view this array from the comforts of his kitchen with the window propped open. We spent the better part of the next hour talking birds, photography, and life. Danny is a well-accomplihed photographer, and it was really nice to see how he beamed with pride as he showed me a number of his favorite photos. I love seeing people get so excited about the things they enjoy doing, whatever those things may be. During our time feeder watching, I was also able to add Common ground-dove (#206) and Painted bunting (#207). 

*Click thumbnails for bigger images*

Danny's feeder array

Clay-colored sparrow #205 - crappy light 
prevented a sharp shot.

Common ground-dove #206 - ditto

Painted bunting #207 - ISO 1600 helped a bit -
I don't usually like to shoot the 7D above ISO 800.

The dynamic duo

I asked Danny how many people had come by to see the sparrow. He told me that about 25 people had visited (I think every one of those people was able to see the bird). When birders have unusual or rare birds visiting feeders on their properties, they have essentially 3 options. First, they can tell no one. They take this approach if they do not want to deal with hosting/entertaining the birders that might want to come and see the bird. Second, they can tell just their close birding friends and have them over to see it. Third, homeowners can publicly post the sighting to the local birdlist and see what happens. The degree of hysteria that can result depends on how rare this bird is. Danny has taken the third approach, and he has played the host amazingly well. It is time out of his day to show people the bird, so I want to publicly thank him for doing this.

However, things have gone smoothly for Danny, in large part, because Clay-colored sparrow is a good, but not great bird for the area. If Danny had a Brambling regularly visiting his feeders and posted it to the birdlist, he would suddenly find his home being visited by hundreds of birders. Situations such as this not only put pressure on the homeowner but also the entire neighborhood. Birders arrive in cars that need to be parked somewhere, and this can often cause headaches for the people in the community. This  sometimes leads to situations where the birder is put at odds with his/her neighbors. It is for reasons such as this that birders sometimes chose to keep rare birds on their property quiet. The decision to report a rare bird in one's yard is completely up to the homeowner, and while we might want everyone to publicy report every bird, we must respect whatever decision the homeowner makes. If birders were completely respectful every time they visited someone's property, this would be less of an issue. However, while most visitors conduct themselves appropriately, there are always some people who are oblivious to the concerns of the homeowner and his/her neighbors. Let's all try to work at being good guests, and we'll get more invitations. HINT: take a personal interest in your host, not just the rare bird!

OK, enough of that for the moment. After leaving Danny's, I spent the rest of the afternoon dodging raindrops as I made my way south to Melbourne, FL. I was able to tack on Cattle egret (#208) and Sandhill crane (#209) before I arrived. The two sandhills were long the side of road and gave me the time to break out my rig for a few shots. I am very happy with these results!

*Click thumbnails for bigger images*

Young bird with rusty feathers

Gotta love backgrounds at f/5.6!

 WHAAATTT?!!? You haven't donated yet?
Please don't make me come after you!
Help save my habitat before developers get it!

It is supposed to rain all day tomorrow, so I will just shoot the 70 miles down the coast to Stuart, FL where I have arranged to stay tomorrow night. From there its down to Boynton/Delray on Friday where the birding should REALLY get hot!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Feb 25 (Day 56) - Short day with some time for photos!

I had another great night at Best Western last night. This time it was at the Best Western Plus Aku Tiki Inn in Daytona Beach. The hotel was right on the beach, and the sound of the ocean through my open porch door last night was certainly welcome. I had planned a short ride today to give myself a bit of a rest. I had covered 230 miles in the previous 3 days, so the 26 miles I covered today hardly registered on my legs. Since I did not have that much riding to do, I took a short walk along the beach in front of the hotel this morning. There were loads of gulls with a few terns mixed in. I did not have a ton of light with which I could work, but I did scrape out a serviceable shot of one of the many Lesser black-backed gulls that dotted the beach. After my walk I returned to the hotel where I destroyed the free breakfast buffet. Pancakes, eggs, danishes, and so-forth stood no chance. One of the great things about biking is that eating doesn't really interfere with the activity!

The view from my room - note gulls along beach

Lesser black-backed gull

After breakfast, I started making moves south towards New Smyrna Beach. I had a newly made friend, Tom, who was going to join me for some bike-birding when I arrived. I actually stayed with Tom's daughter, Sherry, in Wilmington, NC. Tom was around when I stayed at Sherry's, and he invited me to stay with him when I reached this area. This was going to make for a perfectly relaxing afternoon of bike-birding since I did not have that much distance to cover in the morning. I cleared out of the hotel at around 10am (late for me!) and headed south out of Daytona Beach. I was not on the road for 10 minutes when I saw this.

Yes, this is, in fact, the first drive up church I have ever seen. Now, I know Americans are totally obsessed with cars, but this really takes it to a whole new level. They may as well just put up a Sonic and let people order food from carhops. Only in America......

Returning to birding, I did, on Tom's advice, look for and find Yellow-crowned night heron (#203) on the causeway out of Daytona Beach. I was able to snap a few quick shots of this guy before he bolted. I made it out to New Smyrna Beach around noon where Tom promptly bought me lunch. We rode our bikes along the beach to reach Ponce Inlet at the North end of the Island. We found a fair number of gulls, terns, and shorebirds as we cruised along. Notable were my first Sandwich terns (#204) of 2014! We also found 2 purple sandpipers on the jetty at the inlet. Tom says he occasionally finds these this far south. I was surprised to find one of these in Charleston, SC, but I was really shocked to find these 2 today. I simply had no idea they made it this far south. I did snap a few midday pics of one of them. I returned Tom's lunch treat and bought us both ice cream as we return to the center of town. It was a tasty finish to a very relaxing day.

***Click for bigger images***

Yellow-crowned night heron (#203)

 Purple sandpiper

Sandwich tern (#204)

Royal tern portrait 

 Willet, because why not?

OK, I'm a bit short on time after getting all the photos ready for you, so I'll have to sign off for the moment. I am going to make more distance south tomorrow, and I plan on making a stop to look for a Clay-colored sparrow that has been frequenting a feeder in Titusville. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Feb 24 (Day 55) - 5 new species to reach 202, rendezvous with other cyclists

Today started out in St. Augustine, Florida and ended in Daytona Beach 58 miles to the south. With a few miles of biking I did in St. Augustine before I hit the road, I cycled a total of 60 miles today. More importantly, I added 5 species that took me to 202 for the year! Now I can set my sites on 300 which will probably come sometime in April.

I did not have that far to ride today (at least compared to the last 2 days of 92 and 77 miles), so I arranged to meet local biker and green birder Diana Doyle for a few hours of birding this morning. Diana apparently makes it out on her bike almost every day, and so she was the prefect person to show me around St. Augustine. I think birding on a bike makes one aware of areas that he/she might ignore should he/she be birding by car. For instance, as we were riding along, Diana pointed down a dead end street. She said that she often sees hummingbirds down at the end. As Ruby-throated hummingbird would be a year bird, we poked our head down the cul-de-sac and immediately found one (#198). Next stop on our tour was a street where Yellow-throated warbler is known to nest. We quickly found a mixed flock of birds that included the usual chickadees, titmice, and kinglets. We were able to tease out a Blue-headed vireo for #199. Our initial efforts to hear the Yellow-throated warbler singing were thwarted by a leaf blower. However, when we returned a few minutes later we were able to hear a singing male (#200). He didn't stick around long, so he's getting tallied at as heard only even though I saw what I know was him fly out of the tree where he was singing. We unfortunately missed the continuing White-winged doves in a nearby neighborhood, but 2 out of 3 isn't bad. Diana later returned to find the doves after we had split up. She thereby preserved her perfect batting average when in comes to finding good birds in St. Augustine. She demonstrated that sometimes it is better to bird a limited area really thoroughly by bike than simply quickly surveying areas by car. It was a fantastic start to the day.

Diana and I with our bikes

The ride to Daytona Beach was straight south, and with a decent northeast tailwind, I made really good time as I paralleled the beach. At one point I noticed an odd-looking mockingbird on a wire ahead of me. Slowing down to approach it, I quickly realized that it was a Florida scrub jay (#201)! A second one soon joined it on the wire. I probably should have taken a photo, but between being backlit and the time to assemble the camera I decided against the effort. As I was watching the jay, a couple of bikers rolled up beside me and introduced themselves. They were Sabrina and David. The two Germans were in the midst of a 14-month bike trip that was going to take them through parts of Southeast Asia, the US, and Europe. They were carrying at least as much gear as me, and they looked like very well-seasoned cyclists at this juncture of their trip. These two were actually the first other traveling bikers into which I have bumped on my own trip. This is not altogether surprising as only I am crazy enough to brave this east coast winter on a bicycle! We exchanged blog information, and I will try to keep abreast of their movements when I have some downtime. Interestingly, I saw at least 3 other touring bikers after this, so it seems as though there will be some other riders in Florida with whom I will be able to swap stories as I continue.

Sabrina and David

The main reason for my staying in the NASCAR-fan-saturated Daytona Beach was jaegers. Looking in eBird, my new favorite website, I saw that Daytona Beach was my best chance of finding Parasitic jaeger. Local birders had told me the same thing, so I had planned to spend a few hours sea watching from the south end of town. On my way to Daytona, I found a large concentration of birds in the vicinity of several fishing boats just north of town. There were lots of gulls, tern, pelicans, gannets, and cormorants. I was floored by how many gannets there were this far south. I felt that they were noticeably thin up north, so maybe this is where all those birds moved. I was able to pick one jaeger, but it was so far away that I was not willing to even attempt an ID. It would remain safely anonymous as "jaeger, sp" (for unbirders, this means "an unidentified (sp)ecies of jaeger").

I arrived at Frank Rendon Park south of Daytona at 3pm, and I spent the next 3.5 hours perched on a boardwalk that gave me great views of the ocean. The wind had moved around to blow gently from the east. This was ideal as it might serve blow jaegers closer to shore. There was lots of gull activity at this spot, and I was able to pick a distant jaeger that eventually flew close enough for me to ID the smallish, slender bird as a Parasitic (#202). It rocketed by my vantage point and south down the beach. Despite much staring at the horizon, this was the only jaeger I was able to find at this spot. I will return to this spot tomorrow morning for a bit, so maybe I'll find a few more.

I was simply astounded at the numbers of gulls that continued to gather at this spot. I had been told that this was a big gull roost, but I was totally unprepared for the exact numbers. By the time the sun set, there were tens of thousands of gulls blanketing the beach two miles on either side of me. Most of these were Laughing gulls, but there were also large numbers of Ring-billed and Herring. I was able to pick out at least 30 (yes, 30) Lesser-blacked backed gulls at this spot. I have not seen that many in my life up until this point. I was also able to spy a previously reported Glaucous gull (a great bird this far south). As I stayed on the boardwalk for fear of missing a flyby jaeger, I did not see the adult California gull that was found about a mile down the beach by local birder Michael Brothers. While this is a great bird for Florida, it was not one that was going to make me abandon my jaeger post as I am going to see it later in the year anyway. The light was terrible so I did not take any photos of the gulls. It was a really cool spectacle nonetheless. Apparently this gathering is a nightly occurrence around here, so if you ever make it to Daytona, be sure to check it out. Incidently, it is this large gathering of gulls that attracts the jaegers. Jaegers are special gulls that steal food from "normal" gulls.

I am going to keep tomorrow fairly mellow and only ride about 30 miles (I've covered 230 miles in the last 3 days). This will leave much time for birding tomorrow! 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Feb 23 (Day 54) - 2,000 miles and why this trip almost didn't happen

I currently find myself in St. Augustine, Florida after a 77-mile ride from Yulee, Florida. My route took me through downtown Jacksonville and a fair number of strip malls in the surrounding area. I did make it out to the beach in the afternoon, but just as I did this it started to rain very heavily. This rain pounded me for the remaining 30 miles and provided the motivation to ride a bit faster than usual. I was above to cover these 30 miles, much of it during thunderstorms, in 1hr 40mins - an average about 17 MPH. There was zero wind and it was perfectly flat, so this gives me a good idea of a baseline mileage that I can cover when called on to do so. Today's ride also pushed me over the 2,000-mile mark. If I can do 1,000 miles per month (or about 35 miles per day), I should get to all the parts of the country I want and need to visit. 

I am really starting to take pride in the mileage that I can cover each day. I can handle long rides on consecutive days, and I can see that I am losing fat and gaining muscle. Despite the stress that I am placing on it, my body seems to feel better with each passing day. This is especially true for my knees.

I guess it is probably an appropriate time to share something that I have kept quiet for the past few months. This trip nearly did not happen at all due to knee problems that I fought for the better part of a year during 2013. I banged my left knee on a pipe in the spring of that year. That knee was really sore for about a month after that. As is often the case, the right knee started to hurt as I compensated for the left. Problems such as soreness and apparent inflammation plagued me into the summer when I finally cracked and went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with patella-femoral syndrome in my left knee. This condition results from an improperly tracking knee cap, or patella, which itself is due to weakness in the muscles that surround the knee. I was not wholly satisfied with this diagnosis for 2 reasons. First, it was unclear to me how banging my otherwise strong and healthy knee lead to the development of the condition. Second, my knee did not respond consistently well to the physical therapy that was prescribed for it. For a stretch of days my knee would feel fine, and then, for no apparent reason, it would deteriorate to the point where simple walking would cause great discomfort. I was in and out of physical therapy all fall and winter. My last PT session was on December 17, 14 days before I was to leave for this trip. I hardly did any biking in the time leading up to the trip as I wanted to rest the knee as much as possible. My longest ride prior to departing was 32 miles, and this was done without panniers. I figured I would have to use the first few weeks of the trip as training. The first time I rode with the fully loaded bike was January 1st. I was simply to terrified of hurting my knee before this date to do any challenging riding. 

My knee hurt pretty badly for the first 10-12 days of the trip. How much the extreme cold in that time contributed to the pain will never be known. However, as time wore on my knee started to feel better and better, and over the last month or so it appears to have become a non-issue. Yes, my left knee will hurt a bit on longer rides, but that's not startling considering the length of some of these rides. What appears to have happened is that the daily cycling has strengthened my knee to the point where the kneecap appears to be tracking properly now. Considering this, the patella-femoral diagnosis was likely correct even if the exact mechanism through which the pipe episode weakened the knee was not fully understood. I will continue to keep a close watch on both knees, but for the moment my knees appear to be a non-issue. I really hope they stay this way moving forward.

I did add two more birds to the list today. I heard both Northern parula (#196) and Blue-gray gnatcatcher (#197) as I biked along this morning. As with the White-eyed vireo yesterday, I did not stop to look for them. I am sure I will hear and see many more of both of these species as spring migration approaches. Maybe I'll be able to find 3 bird tomorrow to get me to 200!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Feb 22 (Day 53) - Florida arrival, more on Le Conte's, Tripod special at Hunt's Photo!

I was hoping to make it to Jacksonville today, but a major wrench was thrown into that plan by a big detour. This detour added ~27 miles to my route and made the total distance for the day 92 miles. I had been planning to continue down Route 17 to reach Jacksonville, but the bridge on that road that crosses the St. Mary's river was out (The St. Mary's demarcates Eastern Georgia from Florida). This left me with 3 options: a ferry, 5 miles on I-95 to cross the river, or the 27-mile detour. Since the ferry is clearly out, I was left to decide between the last two. I chose the last one which, although very painful, was the safer of the two. It was also the only legal option since bikes aren't permitted on I-95! The Route 17 bridge that was out was just south of Kingsland; I looped to the west north of Kingsland, crossed the river at Folkston, and then cut back to the east (into a headwind!) to reach Yulee where I am spending tonight. Tomorrow I will again take a longer route to avoid another ferry crossing. This will mean a 77-mile ride to St. Augustine where I where I will stay tomorrow night. 170 miles in two days would be a great achievement. I am looking forward to the challenge!

Big detour!

At least they signed it!

The beard is coming in nicely
(this is to aggravate my mom who HATES the beard)

I was able to add two birds to the list today. The first of these was King rail (#194). I had been tipped off to a spot right off of Route 17 near Woodbine where the rails could be found. I heard the 2 rails in the half-hour I spent at the spot, but I was unable to pull them out of the marsh with the tape. These calls were spot on for King rail and very different from the Clapper rail calls that I had been hearing in the salt marsh behind the house where I had stayed the previous 2 nights. I am fully confident in this ID. Hopefully, I will see one of these when I bird the freshwater control areas farther south. I also heard a single White-eyed vireo along the roadside this afternoon. I was in such a good pedaling rhythm that I didn't bother to stop to look for it. Its getting chalked up as a heard bird for #195. I'll see one of these in the next few days anyway.

I have also decided to count the Le Conte's sparrow (#193) that we caught while banding Henslow's sparrows 2 days ago. In reviewing the ABA listing rules, Rule 3.C.iv states that "Banders working on licensed projects under proper permits, may count, for their personal lists, the birds that they band...." The complete rules can be found here. That I did not identify the bird before it was captured does not matter. That we caught a wild bird, identified it, and released it during a legitimate banding session means the bird is countable.

Lastly, as many of you know, Hunt's Photo has furnished me with some equipment for this trip. One incredibly helpful piece that they have provided is my travel tripod, the MeFoto Globetrotter carbon fiber tripod (#C2350). Hunt's and I are proud to announce that they are offering readers of this blog a special on all MeFoto Tripods! Use can use promo code DA10MEFOTO at checkout for a 10% discount on any MeFoto tripod. There are a variety of sizes and styles, all of which are available at Hunt's. These are just fantastic for travel. I have added some of my thoughts on my particular tripod below. If you have questions about camera gear feel free to contact me or Hunt's. I know a fair amount about photographing birds (, and they know about everything else!

Prior to the MeFoto Globetrotter carbon fiber tripod (#C2350), I had a very heavy set of Manfrotto legs with the very good Bogen 3130 head. At close to 10 pounds, this was sturdy but way too big and heavy for this trip. The MeFoto Globetrotter that Hunt's provided has been just fantastic. I doubt I will ever travel with another tripod. It is quite sturdy, and at 3.7 pounds it doesn't weigh me down. It also folds down to around 15". This is very important as it does not stick out from my bike which would be a big safety hazard. It does have 5 leg segments, but the screw-style locks are of high quality and take only 1/4 turn to tighten or loosen. The tripod comes with an integrated Arca-swiss ballhead. Admittedly, ballheads are generally better suited for cameras than spotting scopes, but I have had little trouble making the adjustment. I am particularly excited to take this tripod abroad where I like to do night architectural photography. I know I won't get hassled on the airplane since its so small. You'll need a good travel tripod to get shots like this!

St. Basel's Cathedral, Moscow
(to close out the Olympics!)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Feb 21 (Day 52) - Florida bound!

Today I took a much needed rest day and did some serious research on the birds that I need to find in Florida. Right now my plan is to bird my way south along the eastern edge of the state, spend a bunch of time just south of Miami, and then bird my way back up the western side of the state before heading into the panhandle. I will have nearly a full month to track down a lengthy list of birds that I need to find in the state. Here are the most critical. Most of this data was mined out of eBird this afternoon.

Parasitic jaeger - Best crack at this will be Daytona and Ponce Inlet in the next 3-5 days.

Magnificent frigatebird - These have been seen with increasing frequency in southern part of state.
Fulvous whistling-duck - Will look for this west of Palm Beach.
Snail kite - Will try around Loxahatchee area. I could always go to Lake Kissimmee if I miss it.
Short-tailed hawk - Should see one of these overhead somewhere.
Limpkin - I will see this bird.
King rail - Ugh, still chasing this bird but I have a bunch of spots for it.
Purple gallinule - Loxahatchee NWR marsh trail.
Purple swamphenLoxahatchee NWR, Green Cay Wetlands
Wilson's plover - Beaches anywhere, but most likely around Tampa.
Bar-tailed godwit - Continuing bird in Tarpon Springs north of Tampa.
White-crowned pigeon - Neighborhoods south of Miami, Matheson Hammock Park.
White-winged parakeet - Neighborhoods south of Miami.
Black-headed/Nanday parakeet - Boynton Beach or St. Petersburg.
Mangrove cuckoo - This will be the hardest bird for me. There a a few scattered reports.
Barred owl - Should see or hear this somewhere. Could see in other Gulf states too though.
Eastern whip-poor-will - A night ride through Everglades NP might yield this on the road. I am not counting on seeing this bird as I do not know if I will make it this far south.
La Sagra's flycatcher - Continuing bird in Coral Gables.
Gray kingbird - No specific spot for this, just hoping I can find an early returning bird in March. Going to be really tough/lucky.
Common myna - Anywhere south of Palm Beach.
Common hill myna - Around Coral Gables, Matheson Hammock Park.
Florida scrub jay - Merritt Island, Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary in Brevard.
Red-whiskered bulbul - South Miami suburbs.
Bachman's sparrow - Start singing in March so I should be able to find one on the west coast.
Spot-breasted oriole - Ft Lauderdale neighborhoods, neighborhoods south of Miami.

It looks as though I will be spending at least 3-4 days in South Miami chasing around introduced but countable species. A bike will make the perfect way to do this! There are a host of other birds I would like to find. Most of the following occur elsewhere, and while it would be nice to get them in Florida, it is not imperative that I do so.

Reddish egret

Roseate spoonbill
Yellow-crowned night-heron
Black-bellied whistling-duck
Northern bobwhite
Sandhill crane
Snowy plover
Sandwich tern
Gull-billed tern
Painted bunting

I have a much longer day than anticipated tomorrow as a bridge I needed to cross is closed. That means a 25 mile detour. Sweet.

Feb 20 (Day 51) - LIFER Henslow's sparrow, Le Conte's sparrow - almost

Today was all about one bird: Henslow's sparrow. Yesterday I biked many difficult miles to ensure that I would be able to find this bird today. I had been invited to join a research group from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on its monthly Henslow's census and banding outing. Wintering Henslow's sparrows are incredibly difficult to find. They like to slink around in fields of thick, tangled grass where they spend more time on the ground underneath the foliage than perched up on it. Having help and guidance from the research team would be a huge help towards finding this elusive bird.

I was to meet the group at the banding site at 9:00. I stayed roughly 18 miles from the meeting point, so I figured 1.5 hours would be more than enough time to reach it. A stalled freight train right across my path made life interesting, and it required a 4-mile detour to get back on track (I rode 35 total today). I made the banding session only a few minutes late. I was immediately introduced to the 6-member team which was comprised of 3 full time researchers and 3 very knowledgeable local birders who came to assist the efforts. Pictured here are (L to R) Ken, Eamonn, Todd, Bob, Eugene, and Sterling. They have segregated with GDNR researchers on the left and local birders on the right.


Ugh, roadblock

The Henslow's team

The plan was fairly simple. We would walk 2 defined transects looking for Henslow's sparrows. When we flushed one, we'd note where it landed and then position the mist net in such a way that we could reflush the bird into the net. We would then take wing measurements, weigh the bird, and band it before releasing it. This strategy was fairly successful, and we managed to band at least a dozen birds. We also recaptured at least 7-8 previously banded birds. Some of these birds had been banded 2 years ago in this exact spot. We know this since we recaptured them today. This demonstrates the fidelity with which these birds return to their wintering grounds. It also demonstrates that conserving land in their wintering grounds will ensure that these same birds and their descendants have a predicted place to stay during their non-breeding times in future years.

Positioning the net

It actually took me a while to see a Henslow's that I could count. The flushed sparrows would very often move only a short distance and then dive back into the grass. It was a while until one of the flushed birds landed on a bush and I could see it well enough to count it (#191). I did not get a photograph of this bird, but another cooperative bird a bit later did give me a few frames. The point is that I did not want to count birds that I could only identify after they hit net. Why do I mention this? The second photo below illustrates this point. This is a Le Conte's sparrow. It is the only one we saw or caught all day. When we flushed the bird I thought it looked different than the Henslow's we had been flushing, but it was only after it hit the net that we were able to conclusively identify it. So, I am not going to count this bird as it was the banding net that permitted me/us to identify it. It's painful, but its the right thing to do. We did, however, flush several Sedge wrens (#192) as consolation finds.

I coud juuuusssssttttt spot the Henslow's

Heavilty cropped view of above

The Le Conte's sparrow I won't count

Tomorrow looks like a bit of a washout with thunderstorms and strong south winds predicted. I think I am going to use tomorrow as a rest day and then make a ton of distance south on Saturday when the wind is supposed to swing around and blow from the north.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

BONUS POST - Predict my 200th bird!

In effort to involve you in my year and have a bit of silly fun, Sonia, my awesome girlfriend, has created a poll in which you are encouraged to participate. I am currently at 190 species, and as I approach 200 we (Sonia and I) think it would be fun for people to try to predict species #200. I am about to enter Florida where I will spend the next 3-4 weeks. Have a look and take a stab at it! Bragging rights are on the line so don't wait!

Feb 19 (Day 50) - The big sparrow gamble pays off - LOTS of strategy talk!

Yesterday I told you that I had something really cool cooking for later in the week. It now looks as though this is going to happen. I am not only going to look for (and almost certainly find) Henslow's sparrows tomorrow morning, but I am also going to see them getting banded! Now for the real kicker: Henslow's sparrow would be a Life Bird for me! The banding session will take place tomorrow, Thursday, from 9am - noon, so let me explain how I gambled on this event.

Those of you who follow this blog daily will know that I have recently spent a fair amount of time unsuccessfully searching for Nelson's and Saltmarsh sparrow. I did find Nelson's sparrow yesterday; This left only Saltmarsh outstanding as of today. I saw a very recent (2/17) eBird report of Saltmarsh sparrow from Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island east of Savannah. Given the consistency of sightings from this spot, it looked very promising. This location was 13.3 miles east of where I stayed last night. This would be a ~27-mile run down to the spot and back. More importantly though, the time spent riding to this spot and searching for the bird might jeopardize the additional 63-mile ride I would need to do today to position myself for the Henslow's tomorrow. In a car, this would be so easy it would be silly. On a bike, however, it's an incredible challenge. I also knew the wind was going to be from the southwest at 10-12 MPH which would make that 63-mile stretch feel more like 100.

Saltmarsh data from eBird

The smart/safe play would have been to forget about the Saltmarsh sparrow and put myself in position for Henslow's tomorrow. The problem is that there is going to be some bad weather rolling in on Friday. So, even if I saw Henslow's tomorrow, I probably wouldn't be able to search for Saltmarsh again until Saturday. Basically, I'd end up investing 2 more days (Fri/Sat) into this bird and I still might miss it. So, I decided to gamble that I could quickly find a Saltmarsh sparrow on Cockspur Island, blow back through Savannah, and fight the wind all afternoon to reach my lodging near the Henslow's spot before I collapsed of cardiac arrest along the road.

In short, I was able to find a single Saltmarsh sparrow (#190) right as I arrived to Cockspur Island. In fact, I found it just as I crossed the bridge onto the island. Since I had biked all the way there, I decided to at least ride around the Fort to give the place it's due. It is absolutely beautiful, and the setting at the mouth of the Savannah River couldn't be more picturesque (light from the east prevented a decent photo, sorry). The Georgia coast can certainly give the South Carolina Coast a good run. To the amateur eye, the Saltmarsh sparrow will appear very similar to the Nelson's. However, the Saltmarsh has a brighter orange face, slightly longer bill, a less buffy chest, and more black in his eyebrow. These pictures are less than outstanding but serviceable. 

Interestingly, if you return to the eBird data above, you can see that James Fleullan also reported a single Saltmarsh sparrow from this site today. I wonder if he saw the same bird. He also reported zero Nelson's sparrows. I'm glad to see I didn't miss some big group of sparrows as that would not have spoken highly of my bird finding skills. I'm also glad that I did find that single Nelson's yesterday since they either weren't around or cooperative this morning. Another example of how much luck plays into this whole process!

The bridge to Cockspur Island

Saltmarsh sparrow

The long ride after seeing this bird was painful to say the least. I rode ~91 miles today, 78 of it into the wind. It is about 18 miles to the Henslow's spot tomorrow morning. This will take 1.5 hours at most, so if I leave here at 7am, I should arrive in time for the banding. Now I just need to hope the birds cooperate!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Feb 18 (Day 49) - So long South Carolina, hello Georgia!

Very fast let me say that we're over $5,000 dollars raised for bird conservation. Thanks to everyone who has donated so far! We now rejoin the regularly scheduled post already in progress!

I have been fortunate to have done a lot of traveling, both domestic and internationally, in my 35 years on the Blue Marble. However, one area that I have missed up until this point is The South. I have spent a bit of time in Virginia and Maryland, but these states feel to me a like a southern extension of the northeast (maybe because of the weather). The only part of North Carolina that I have visited is the Outer Banks, but these are beach communities more than anything else. I have also spent a fair amounts of time in both Texas and Florida, but I do not think of either of these states as particularly "Southern" despite their latitudes. The past week in South Carolina therefore represents what I would call my first Southern experience. I will say that I was thoroughly impressed with the state and its residents, and I would definitely considering a more extended visit at some point in the future. The weather was great, the people were incredible friendly, and the coastal plain provide some absolutely spectacular scenery. Access to some of the best birding areas can be a bit difficult, particularly on a bike. The upside of this is that there is much undeveloped land along the coast and in the vast basins that line it. I fully expect the Southern Hospitality to continue here in Georgia! There may be some major political differences between The Northeast and The South, but at the end of the day, the folks down here like a hamburger and a cold beer as much as anyone in Boston. I think the time I spend in the South will help dull, for the better, the hard New England edge that I sometimes brandish. 

I started the day in Port Royal, SC. My plan was to kick around that area for a few hours, then head down to Savannah NWR in the afternoon. I knew that high tide was at 9:30am, and I also knew that high tide anywhere is generally the best time to search for marsh sparrows. The high tide forces the birds from owed areas towards to the few high areas in any marsh; High tide thus functions to concentrate the sparrows in small areas. I did have another flat tire this morning (#3), but thankfully it was also a slow leak from yesterday that I was able to handle before I rode out this morning. Not far into my ride, I found a nice marsh with some good clumps of spartina grass right near the road. Spishing and squeaking for a few minutes produced several Seaside sparrows. I was about to move on when a different Ammodramus sparrow suddenly appeared. I ID'd the bird as a Nelson's sparrow (#187), and it actually stuck around long enough for me to crack off a few serviceable frames to confirm the ID. 

***Click for bigger images***

The spartina clump along the road

Nelson's sparrow
Manual focus to combat the reeds!

The afternoon was split between riding and the Savannah NWR. The refuge is quite a place. It has a very informative visitors center and a great 4-mile auto drive that I navigated on my bike with ease. Blue-winged teal were everywhere, as were American Coots and Common Moorhens. Other plentiful ducks included Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, and Green-winged teal. I also found a few Wilson's snipe, several Lesser yellowlegs, and a single Anhinga. At least 2 harriers floated over the impoundments looking intently for food below. I did add 2 additional species this afternoon. I was able to squeak out a male Common yellowthroat (#188), and I also flushed 2 Mottled ducks (#189) along the dikes. I also had looks at several alligators that were loafing in the afternoon sun. There will be no shortage of these as I make my way further south. 

I rode 57 miles total between the 53 on the journey and the 4 around the refuge. Tomorrow I am going to head down to the mouth of the Savannah River to search for Saltmarsh sparrow. Several were reported here in eBird from the high tide yesterday morning, and I will bird that same high tide tomorrow with hopes of replicating these reports. I really want to find this bird bird tomorrow and find it early. I have an AMAZING invitation for Thursday morning, but it is an 80-mile ride from Savannah. Stay tuned for details on this offer if I can make it in time!