Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas in Texas - updates to follow

AB and I just got back from five days in San Antonio to visit my family. We managed to sneak away twice for birding purposes, and I have a TON of photos to show you. However, it's 8:37 and I've been up since 3:45 Texas time; you'll just have to wait and see what I have for you.

Hope your holiday was safe and happy!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Chase for the Black-headed Gull: FAIL -- UPDATED!

On Saturday morning, Baby G, local birding heroes Alex and Anna, and I went hunting for a Black-headed Gull that had been seen in Moraine State Park near Pittsburgh. Gretchen picked me up at 5:40 a.m.; we picked up local birding heroes Alex and Anna at 6 (after a coffee run), and we were off. Two and a half hours later, in a steady but light snow (tiny flakes), we got to the park and ... we were unsuccessful.

We looked EVERYWHERE. We found a spot near the swimming beach where others had seen the gull; we saw a bunch of Ring-billed Gulls
Herring Gulls
and a couple of Bonaparte's Gulls
but no Black-headed Gull

We saw Ruddy Ducks, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, and more -- but no Black-headed Gull.

In one exciting moment, however, I did get my first look at a Red-throated Loon! Lifer! He never settled down, though; it's tough to get a good look at a bird when it's flying back and forth about 300 yards out over a lake in a snowstorm. Do you think it counts? Alex pointed out the way he held his head lower with his neck bowed than a Common Loon would hold it, but that was about all I saw distinctive about the bird. Otherwise, I would've been hard-pressed to ID him. I'd much rather see the bird sitting in the water in full breeding plumage. Still -- I saw him! Getting a photo was impossible, though.

Another highlight: Alex lowered his window and it got stuck. Stuck in the open position:Electronic malfunction. Oops. Good thing he's got that beard to keep him warm!

We also got great looks at a Northern Shrike, only the second time I've seen one:This is a terrible photo (the light was nonexistent), but in Baby G's new scope we could see the light barring on his breast and his beautiful Liz Taylor-as-Cleopatra-like eye stripes. Awesome.

We also saw a juvenile UPDATED - TRUMPETER Swan! A lifer! With photo!So I had just glanced at the swan and thought "Tundra? Probably." But Alex pointed out that it's a juvie Trumpeter Swan -- note the bill that's black at the base, as opposed to a Tundra's which would be pink at the base. SWEET!

Here's Baby G and her new peeper:Very cool.

For much better photos of our exploits, see Alex's blog post and photos.

Gretch and I are pretty excited about our upcoming February trip to Texas -- I don't know if I've mentioned it yet here, but needless to say: there will be posts!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Snow before Halloween? TRICK!

Gretchen, LT, and I attempted to go birding yesterday. Here's what it looked like on the roads:We'd seen text alerts about scoters, mergansers, and terns up at Bald Eagle State Park but, by the time we got out there in the heavy snow, visibility was terrible. The fog rolled in and we only saw one little Ruddy Duck, a bunch of European Starlings, and a sparrow of some sort.

I can't remember the last time it snowed before Halloween; we got about 3 inches of very wet and very heavy snow. We went out again today, a bright and sunny beautiful day, but again we were thwarted; the PSU rowing teams were out on the lake and there wasn't a duck to be seen. We'd heard there was a Red-necked Grebe out there, but it must've flown when the rowers started out.

I'll leave you with these photos of my babies:Cornelius is growing like a weed! He sure loves his mommy.

He also loves hanging out in Niblet's room:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A whopper of a catch-up post - updated! updated again!

It's been a long while since I've had time to post all the observations and photos from the last few weeks of birding, so I'm going to combine it all into one giant whopping post. Stick with me!

Short of the trips to Cape May over the years, this has been one of my most productive fall migrations as far as new birds go. It's been fun learning some new hotspots in the State College area for fall migrants; Gretchen and I have tried to get out as much as we can, though work has kept us pretty busy and the weather (almost constant rain) has been against us a lot of the time.

Let's count 'em down by the location.

1. Circleville Farms: this is an area of fields and mowed paths with some great bushy undergrowth, lots of vine-covered small trees, and cornfields -- it reminds me a lot of the Beanery in Cape May. I kept looking for Phragmites and those blue china berries. The most exciting fall visitor there so far was a Henslow's Sparrow that proved incredibly cooperative for some of the local birding guys. The sparrow had been hanging out in the same bush every morning for about a week, so we got to the area and waited -- after about twenty minutes, he appeared! I got a great look at his golden highlights, fine streaking, and kinda neck-less compact shape; just as I lowered the bins and pulled up the camera, a Song Sparrow flew by him and provoked his natural territorial instincts. Translation: he flew after the Songy and never came back. No photo. Still, we got to see him! Within a few days, he was headed for southerly climes so I'm glad I saw him. Highlights for this trip included Palm Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, and lots of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows.

2. PSU Arboretum: this was another area I didn't even know existed, right in the middle of town. The ornithology students do a lot of bird-banding here, and we decided to hit the area in search of several new warblers; we were not disappointed! And this time, we got PHOTOS!
We saw Nashville Warblers, easily ID'd by their prominent white eyerings and the white underparts area right where their legs meet their body (surrounded by yellow):

Lifer! (At least one of these photos was taken by Gretchen, by the way.)

I also got terribly blurry but definitive photos of a Wilson's Warbler wearing his little black cap:
What a cutie! And a lifer!

Finally, we saw a Mourning Warbler - and here's the update - but we didn't get photos. I'm sitting here with Baby G, and she says that although we saw the bird, we did NOT get a photo. I think I was trying to make these other photos into Mournings, but they're not. This is apparently a Nashville:and this is apparently still a Nashville -- also the same bird as the first photo. Thanks, Drew and Alex, and thanks Baby G for the memories!
So -- two more Nashville photos.

Still, Mourning was the third new warbler of the morning; sadly, I didn't get a photo of the Swainson's Thrush OR the Mourning, but you can't have everything.

Here's another photo with a bit of a mystery:

That looks like a Nashville Warbler on the left (that eyering is ridiculous!), but who's on the right? The bird's breast is so yellow, too yellow for a phoebe I think. But what is it? No wingbars, small warbler or flycatcher size. Help? UPDATE! Local birder (and one of my birding heroes) Drew of The Nemesis Bird checks in with the ID in the comments -- Common Yellowthroat! Thanks, Drew!

That little puddle also provided a tubby for this young male cardinal:Sweet little guy.

Other highlights for this spot included a Sharp-shinned Hawk that kept hanging around getting mobbed by American Crows, a Hermit Thrush, and a bunch of other warblers: Magnolia, Canada, Black-throated Blue, Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart. This is a great spot, especially given the fact that the arboretum is like three blocks from one of the main streets through town.

3. Our Little Squat (not quite a Big Sit) in the backyard -- action was kinda slow, but we did get a new yardbird: a Belted Kingfisher! Our tally for the few hours we sat outside was only 20 species, but the kingfisher was a nice addition to the yardlist, now a whopping 49 species including three kinds of warbler, seven kinds of sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, Whip-poor-will, and Eastern Meadowlark.

Whew! A whirlwind of warblers and a blizzard of birds. My lifelist has jumped to 316!

I'll finish up with some cute:
Cornelius is growing up soooooo fast! Here he is in a rare quiet period; most of the time, he's tearing around the house, chasing the other cats and Niblet, and jumping on them. It seems to be his favorite method of greeting, closing, and everything in between. Here's a sample:Oh dear.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sweet YardBird of Youth

We've had a first-year female Cape May Warbler hanging around the pines in the backyard for the last three days:

If it looks like I'm right there next to the bird, it's because I was. She was surprisingly tolerant, flitting right at eye level and over my head in the low branches of the big pine and the yew shrubbery under it (A SHRUBBERY! hee hee) as I photographed her.

Pretty cool. Baby G came over and saw it yesterday and tonight -- a lifer for her!

Not a bad yard bird!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fall foliage, early edition -- UPDATED with IDs

No, we don't have too many fall leaves turning yet, but we do have a lot of nice fall flowers blooming. Gretchen, her gf, and AB and I went camping at Greenwood Furnace (they have a great pair of very isolated walk-up sites that we love) and got some great flower and mushroom photos. The best bird of the trip was a beautiful Ovenbird just above eye-level who gave us quite a show, including raised crest just like Crossley shows; unfortunately, he dashed out of sight before either of us could snap a photo. Flowers are infinitely easier to capture!

Meadow Closed Gentian

Calico Aster

the seed pods from Doll's Eyes, which are kinda creepy

some interesting orange-topped mushrooms

Magenta Coral mushroom?

a shimmery purple mushroom--it was like a cartoon mushroom from Barbie land

couldn't ID this one -- any ideas?

Is this a Striped Maple Tree? Here are the leaves:

Saw some nice moths; at least I think the second one is a moth:
there's nothing for scale, but he was at least two inches from tip to wing-end! He's a beauty! Perhaps some kind of underwing?

I don't know if this is some sort of clearwing moth or some gigantic mosquito hawk -- again, with nothing to show scale, it's hard to see that he's about 1-1/2 inches long with a 2-inch+ wingspan. Per Wren, my friend from Cape May, it's a Giant Eastern Crane Fly, Pedicia albivitta, and quite a beautiful little specimen. Harmless, per What's That Bug?

And some soon-to-be moths!
the closest I can come on this guy is a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar
possible Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar

I leave you with this scary-big bee-wasp-possible-clearwing-moth thing:He was at least 1-1/2 inches long! I have gone through all the images of clearwings on the Bug Guide site, but I can't find one with this pattern of body -- many are close, but not exact matches. And if he's a bee or wasp... holy moly. His wings were constantly flapping, and he was very scary to someone who's allergic to bee and wasp stings -- like me. There's some discussion in the comments as to whether it's a Cicada Killer or a European Hornet -- not really sure. Either way, it's creepy and scary -- but it didn't display any aggressive behaviors, at least.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lifer alert!

Yesterday, Gretchen, her gf, and I went to the flooded farm fields on Nixon Rd between here and Pine Grove Mills -- where I got my lifer Vesper Sparrow -- in search of a rumored American Golden-Plover. Also seen there earlier in the day were a Baird's Sandpiper and a White-rumped Sandpiper. We only saw the beautiful American Golden-Plover (the ABA checklist hyphenates it for some reason, so who am I to argue?), though it was dusk and the fog was rolling in -- so no photos.

I was hoping to see it in better light today, but the clouds and rain blew out last night and no one reported seeing them after early this morning. Hmph. At least I saw the Golden, but I sure wanted to see the White-rumped. (I saw a Baird's last year at Bald Eagle State Park, though it would've been neat to see the two quite similar birds side by side, like they appear in the oh-so-awesome Crossley ID Guide, about which -- although everyone knows how awesome it is by now -- I feel the need to shout how awesome it is pretty much every day.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Migrant madness--UPDATED!

Gretchen and I went to Scotia Barrens IBA between 1 and 3pm yesterday afternoon -- an odd time, and not normally a good time, but it turned out to be really good. We saw sooooo many warblers and flycatchers that we were overwhelmed, but we did our best to ID and even got some good snapshots.

We started off at the pond; the weather had cleared earlier so we didn't see much waterfowl. Still, look at this Pied-billed Grebe:
Nice catch!

We then went down the road and saw several little flocks of migrating warblers, some still in breeding plumage but most wearing their "confusing fall warbler" outfits.
Black-throated Green Warbler, always abundant at Scotia

one of the many Magnolia Warblers we saw

Gretchen got this great photo of my favorite warbler the Blackburnian:I would've written this off as a BTGreen--but look at the face. Crossley has a photo of a Blackburnian that looks just like this.

Our complete list, which contains three lifers (in bold) but I'm hesitant to count two of them. I feel good about the YBFL because I got good looks at it. However, the Philly Vireo and Acadian Flycatcher were ID'd solely by voice and not seen--I'll note this on my spreadsheet and in my margin to the right:

Pied-billed Grebe 2
Turkey Vulture 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Northern Flicker 1
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher 1
Acadian Flycatcher 1
Philadelphia Vireo 1
Blue Jay 3
American Crow 2
Black-capped Chickadee 6
White-breasted Nuthatch 4
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 6
Cedar Waxwing 32
Ovenbird 1
Northern Waterthrush 1
American Redstart 3
Magnolia Warbler 7
Bay-breasted Warbler 1
Blackburnian Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 3
American Goldfinch 1
This report was generated automatically by eBird v2 (

That puts me at 310 -- 308 plus two heard-onlys. Hmph.

We also saw some good bugs and other creepy-crawlies:
some sort of damselfly--per John, a kind of spreadwing

is this the nymph stage of something, or a new kind of stinkbug?
Per John, it's probably the nymph stage of an actual stinkbug!

look at this beauty! I can't find this one anywhere in my moth book or online. Any help?
Per John, it might well be a Pyrrhia exprimens, or Purple-lined Sallow larva.
And it certainly does look like the photo on this web site.

And by the way, John mentioned a book that's sure to go onto my wish list: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David Wagner. I loves the cats! Hello, Christmas present!

Red Darner? Nope -- probably a meadowhawk, per John. I thought perhaps a Ruby Meadowhawk, but they have black spots on the tips of the wings. Then I thought Red-tailed Pennant (a skimmer) but they aren't up here. So -- I just don't know enough! And if John couldn't give me an ID, then I might as well give up!

Thanks to John for all his ID help!

Of course I relieved my Warbler Neck issues with some flower-gazing:
this looks most like a Giant Sunflower, only it's not that giant and there are fewer petals on it. Probably a garden escapee.

Nodding Ladies' Tresses -- life flower!

my old favorite Butter and Eggs

This reminds me of Chamomile; can't find it in my flower guides. Any ideas?

We went back to Scotia this morning with a big group, one of the many guided fall walks scheduled for this month. I was thinking we'd see everything we saw yesterday and more, and all the big-time birders would ID everything we couldn't get yesterday. No such luck -- it was really dead out there; nothing on the pond, a random Blackpoll Warbler, a bunch of chickadees and Cedar Waxwings. We had a brief moment of excitement when we saw a tiny group of three BTGreens and an American Redstart. Pretty disappointing.

But at least we went out for breakfast afterwards, and I got some outdoor time before the rain came (again). It's been raining almost non-stop for the last week, remnants of TS Lee. There's severe flooding in several areas of the state, but we got lucky here and only had minor flooding one morning. The worst of it went south and east of us. It cleared up and the humidity blew out yesterday just in time for us to have a wonderful day outside. Today? Not so much.