Monday, October 13, 2008

A Wonderful Day Out at Cheyne Beach

This morning I was out early (4:45 am to be exact) to seek out some of the rare birds found on the southern sea coast of Western Australia east of Albany. Not only did we have great luck with a couple of these, but I even managed to see a Noisy Scrubbird singing from a song perch. I have seen several of these crossing roads and paths, but this was the first time I actually saw one as it was singing. Quite an impressive sight! On top of that, the nearby bay was full of Southern Right Whales. There must have been at least nine animals, with several young calves swimming close to their mothers. They spend most of their time lazily swimming at the surface looking a lot like exposed rocky shoals that are in some of the bays in this region. As I am a cetacean nut, this was the high point of my day. I took this as some sort of an early birthday gift to myself. Perhaps tomorrow has further adventures in store for me.

Look closely at the second image and you can see four different Southern Right Whales. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wombat Scratch

Today at Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Australia we saw three separate Wombats. The first was a rather blond colored individual that was out at Darby Beach. It looked remarkably like one that I had seen there many years earlier. We went on to see a couple more near Tidal River. One caught on video stops to scratch its back as it crosses under a wire barrier.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

She Wants More Fairywrens

Okay, she said she wants to see more fairywrens. Well, since I'm back in Australia, I'm back to seeing fairywrens. So here is one for your viewing pleasure, the male Superb Fairywren. It is indeed superb. I've seen some other fun birds in the last few days including Superb Lyrebird, Powerful Owl, and Swift Parrot. On top of that, I had the best look at a Blue Shark that I had ever had.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Sinaloa Wren in Arizona!

On August 25th, I was at a business meeting at the Circle Z Ranch south of Patagonia when I started to receive email and phone messages from a birding friend of mine simply stating that there was a really rare bird in Patagonia and asking if we were around to try to document it with pictures and digital recordings. It turns out it was a Sinaloa Wren that had been found that morning by Matt Brown and Robin Baxter. The two had managed to get a single photo and a crude recording of the bird but were hoping to track it down again for further documentation. My colleagues and I met up with Matt, Robin, and friends that afternoon. We searched for the bird for a few hours but could not relocate it. It went unseen for the next two days. Then on the morning of the 28th, Matt relocated the bird. It had moved a bit from its previous location and again was proving hard to see well. So on the 29th, I decided to try once more to see if I could locate it. When I arrived in Patagonia, there were already a number of birders assembled. No one had seen the bird yet, and folks were spread out along the road listening for the wren. As luck would have it, the bird began singing nearby and we were able to hear its distinctive song. Amazingly, I caught sight of it foraging in a cottonwood tree inside the preserve and I was able to get a lot of folks on the bird and still find time to get some recordings and a few photos. It was the only time the bird was actually seen this day. This is a species that was long predicted to occur in the state (and in fact may have back in 1989 when one was seen by a single observer along the San Pedro River). The making of great Arizona birding lore!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Another short tale of Short-tails

It was one of those great moments in Arizona birding. The year was 1999. Just a couple of days after searching unsuccessfully for a pair of birds in upper Miller Canyon, I was fortunate to see a light morph Short-tailed Hawk sail past me and my group in the Chiricahuas. This was a species I had been hoping to see for years in Arizona, and aside from two much older sight records from the Huachucas and Chiricahuas in the 1980's, Short-tailed Hawk was essentially unknown in Arizona. In April of 1999, Mike Lanzone had spotted what was no doubt the same bird in the Chiricahuas that I had just seen.

Fast forward to 2001, when the Chiricahuas again hosted Short-tailed Hawks. It was this year that juveniles first began being detected. On two consecutive days I saw young juveniles flying above Carr Canyon in the Huachucas and in the Chiricahuas. And so it has continued every year. Short-tailed Hawks have been found at a few additional sights including one that wintered in the Tucson valley. Nesting was confirmed in 2007, though the evidence was overwhelming long before an actual nest was detected.

Since that time, the unimaginable has happened.  I can no longer keep track of the number of Short-tails I have seen in the state. The juvenile photographed above was seen on August 8, 2008 and represents another year's breeding effort from birds in the Chiricahuas. It makes me happy just knowing that this species patrols the skies of Arizona.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blue Whale Fest

On July 26th, LK and I went out on the American Cetacean Society's Blue Whale Watch, a fundraising trip aboard the Condor Express. We ventured out about 26 nautical miles from the Santa Barbara harbor. It was a blast! We had perhaps a thousand Short-beaked Common Dolphins, two Minke Whales, and ultimately, at least ten, but perhaps as many as twenty Blue Whales. As we approached the waters that the Blue Whales had been favoring, the fog grew thicker until we were unable to see more than 100 meters from the boat. I began to worry a bit that we might conceivably miss them due to fog, as I have had some difficult whale watching experiences on the Bay of Fundy thanks to fog. Eventually, it was the skipper who heard one blow over the noise of the engines. We idled at the spot until we again heard the loud and unmistakable spouting. We crept toward the sound until finally we could just barely make out the slightly darker form of a whale at the surface. We followed it slowly, getting progressively better views until it led us into less foggy conditions. From this point on, we were never out of sight of whales. This was about 7-8 nautical miles WNW of Santa Cruz Island (see map). I had seen Blue Whale on three other occasions, but the opportunity to spend more than three hours observing these magnificent creatures was simply fantastic.

The seas were wonderfully calm for our excursion. There seemed to be a lot going on at times, with numerous California Sea Lions visible for much of the trip. There were a couple of Harbor Seals seen too, including one wrapped up in kelp. It wasn't doing any talking. There were a few Ocean Sunfish, and at one point, we found a small gathering of young ones. Seabirds were sparse, though there were plenty of Sooty Shearwaters and smaller numbers of Pink-footed Shearwaters.

The trip's narration was first rate. Most of it was delivered by cetacean expert Alisa Schulman-Janiger. Among the myriad of whale trivia she mentioned over the course of the cruise was that recent tagging/tracking studies of Blue Whales had shown that Blue Whales seem to form male-female pair bonds, as animals are often found in pairs with the female swimming just ahead of the male. Unlike the toothed whales, baleen whales are not thought to form any significant long term social bonds outside of that of a mother and calf. So the long term pair bonding of Blue Whales is a significant finding. We also encountered a team of cetacean biologists (working under Dr. Bruce Mate) who were tagging Blue Whales, and we were able to observe two of these tagged animals.

The occurrence of Blue Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel in summer seems to be a recent phenomenon. When I was at school at UCSB in the mid-80's, Blue Whales were almost unheard of near the Channel Islands. But beginning in 1990, small numbers began to arrive in summer to feed on a couple species of krill that have been gradually increasing in number. By 1993, whale watching tours were making regular trips to see these magnificent animals. According to Schulman-Janiger, the 2000 or so Blues that spend the summer off of Santa Barbara represent the largest known population in the world, and one of the few that seems to be growing. Satellite data has demonstrated that many of these whales go south as far as the Pacific waters off of Costa Rica. 

One final gee whiz.  Male Blue Whales have one of the loudest voices in the animal kingdom.  We just can't hear them.  Their sonorous booming is too low pitched for human ears.  This site has an example of the sound sped up 10 times to bring it into the audible range. It can be heard across vast distances.  Researchers have recently noted that in the last few decades, the frequency/pitch of the Blue Whale vocalizations has dropped, (i.e., calls are lower pitched today). No one knows for sure why that it, but some speculate that it is increased competition for mates as their populations rebound. More in this New York Times article.   

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When Pigs Fly!

Recently, while watching Harbor Seals in Alaska, I got to talking to one of the clients, a studious biologist named Chris. He asked me if I had ever heard about a talking Harbor Seal that had been featured on NPR. My eyes widened in disbelief. Chris was a little fuzzy on the details, but as promised, he looked into it once he got home and forwarded me the details. Sure enough, seals can sometimes talk. The celebrity in question was named Hoover, the talking Seal. According to the New England Aquarium website, Hoover was found in Cundy Harbor, Maine in May 1971. Since he was believed to be an orphaned pup, he was cared for by his rescuers, George and Alice Swallow. When he outgrew his bathtub, he was moved to a nearby pond. It was there that the most bizarre thing happened.  Hoover began to imitate human voices. He was soon transferred to the New England Aquarium, where he lived until 1985. He became quite a local celebrity, and was the focus of research into voice acquisition and mimicry in seals. Here are some examples of Hoover's talents. His voice was apparently quite close to that of Mr. Swallow.
Example 1
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4

It turns out that the legacy of Hoover lives on somewhat.  His grandson, Chacoda, who currently lives at the New England Aquarium, shares some of the skills of his famous grandfather. Chuck, as he's called by his keepers, is being trained to mimic humans, in part using the recordings of his legendary grandpa. So far he can say "hi" and "how are you?". See here for more info, including a recording of Chacoda working on "How are you?" with a trainer. 

For more information on Hoover, check out the New England Aquarium tribute page here.  The photo of Hoover above first appeared in the Boston Globe. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sei it isn't so!

Recently, I've been in a cetacean frame of mind. My last two trips have had some wonderful whale watching experiences, and I am off in a couple of days to look for Blue Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel northwest of Los Angeles. I really do love the experience of encountering whales in the wild. I've actually been fortunate enough to see a lot of different kinds over the years. But there are a few that have eluded me. Foremost among these is the Sei Whale, an enigmatic species that seems to be pretty elusive. I'm hoping I will just stumble upon one on a pelagic some day, but it doesn't sound like they are very common anywhere. If a hot tip comes along and I can get there...I'm there!

Sei whale is a bit of an enigma anyway. For starters, English speakers can't seem to agree on how to pronounce it, even in print. It is either "say" or "sigh". It also has separate populations in the northern and southern oceans that may represent different species. It is believed to be the fastest of all of the baleen whales, and tends to be an irruptive species, becoming locally common for brief periods in an unpredictable manner. 

On top of everything else, Sei Whale has a close cousin named Bryde's Whale with which it has a long history of being confused.  Now if you think the Sei Whale story is muddled, the Bryde's Whale complex is, well, complex. First of all, it's not "Brides" but rather something like "Broo-dess". But pronouncing its name correctly is just the tip of the iceberg. The holotype specimen was an individual found in Burma in 1878, and given the name Balaenoptera edeni. Another baleen whale taken in 1913 off South Africa was named B. brydei, after a whaler named Johan Bryde, but was later lumped with edeni. Since that time, it has been determined that there are multiple forms of what is known as Bryde's Whale, including a smaller inshore version and a larger pelagic version constituting at least two good species. 

The problem is that no one knows which form the 1878 holotype belongs to. And apparently, no one has been able to get access to it to do the necessary DNA analysis. If it is edeni, then all is right with the world, and the small forms can be called edeni. If it matches the DNA of the larger forms, then they will become edeni, and brydei will become a synonym of edeni, while a new name will need to be chosen for the smaller form. Clear as mud? Good, it gets better!

There is also another form that researchers have tied with Bryde's until recently, namely the uber-enigmatic Omura's Whale, B. omurai. First described in 2003, this form (also named for a whaler) was initially thought to be closely related to Bryde's, and by some perhaps even to be nothing more than an example of the smaller inshore form edeni.  But recent DNA analysis suggests that this is indeed a good species, and not a close cousin to any form of Bryde's Whale at all, but instead one that branched off the baleen whale tree around the time of the Blue Whale, with the Sei, Fin, and Bryde's whales diverging later. 

Incidentally, I have seen Bryde's Whale once off of New Zealand.  Researchers there don't know for sure whether these are smaller inshore or larger offshore types, but the whales measure out to be toward the larger end of the Bryde's spectrum. All of this makes my head spin (heavy sei!). I'll save the muddled mess that is Minke Whale for another post.  The Bryde's Whale image above is from the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society website.  

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gulls and whales today

Today was another day in Newfoundland.  Unlike yesterday, the sun stayed hidden for most of the day, although it was out a bit in the morning.  We had a nice time doing part of the Irish Loop south of St. John's.  At Tors Cove, while taking in the wonderful scene, I noticed that there were some whales spouting offshore.  Well it turns out that there were nearly fifty of these Humpbacks.  I have never seen anything like it.  Spouts were everywhere.  Further on, we looked through some gull flocks and found a nice Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Then at St. Vincent's Beach, many dozens of gulls were feeding actively along the beach.  Among the throng was an Iceland Gull, looking nearly adult, but with a couple of older outer primaries. After leaving there, we drove a short ways down the road to check out some Arctic Terns.  Someone spotted a small gull perched nearby.  Turns out it was a young Little Gull, the second for me in Newfoundland, and one of my favorite gulls. So despite less than perfect weather, it was quite a day of birding. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Just like she said

It happened just like LK said it would. It was my fourth day in the Atlantic Maritimes, and frankly, the weather had been crap so far. I had also been keeping crazy hours in order to get to St. John's, Newfoundland, including a grueling eighteen hour ferry ride. When it wasn't raining, it was so foggy I could not see more than 100 yards out to sea.  But I couldn't stand up anyway, it was THAT windy. I made it through the entire pelagic voyage seeing one bird, a lone Leach's Storm-Petrel battling the elements. So I was ready for a change. Talking to LK last night, she wished me luck on my trip and wished for a beautiful day for our boat ride on Witless bay filled with lots of whales and sun.  And guess what, we had a beautiful, sunny day, and saw lots of whales. The boat trip featured the often fantastic Humpbacks, but also an uncharacteristically curious Minke Whale that spent some time checking us out up close. Throw in an iceberg and a bunch of seabirds, and it was a pretty good trip! The crew was so excited about things, they actually kept us out an hour longer because the whales would not stop performing. Back at the dock they said it was one of the top three whale days they'd ever had. Exaggeration I'm sure, but I've seen a fair few whale shows, and this one was the best I had had on Witless Bay. And to top things off, we headed to Cape Spear in the afternoon. Cape Spear is where North America ends and the next bit of dry land is Ireland. With the Capelin running, the whales were coming in close, including three fantastic Fin Whales. These Fins came so close that we could see their white lower jaws (right side only), and the delicate chevrons across their backs behind their blowholes. It was really awesome. Other than being overheated and bit sunburned, it was the perfect day. I need to talk to LK more often.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

There's No Place Like Nome

Well, most of the time. Nome is one of my favorite spots in all of Alaska. The birding can be fantastic, and the Kougarok Road is one of the most scenic places I've ever been. But it is not always such a thrill. This year, our group got lots of snow and it was quite chilly most of the time. Still we managed to see the birds we were after. The second tour did not fare quite so well. As I write this, my co-workers Megan and George are still stuck in Nome, having been there now for six days! They have already missed their visit to Seward, and are in danger of missing the flight to Barrow and their time up there. These are the times tour leaders dread. I sure hope they get on that plane!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Tufted Flycatcher in Arizona!

For as long as I can remember, birders in Arizona have been wondering when a Tufted Flycatcher would finally show up in the state. Texas got its first in 1991, and another in 1993. With this species occurring just a few hundred miles south of the border, it seemed as though Arizona would soon end up with one. There were some tantalizing reports, including a well described bird from Tucson in April 1999, and another yet to be submitted report of one from Patagonia in January 1992. Then in February 2005, one was photographed along the Colorado River in northwestern Arizona. This finally added the species to the state list in a surprising manner, but unfortunately, it could not be relocated. Fortunately, birders got another chance this week when another Tufted Flycatcher was discovered in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona on May 5th. Once the bird was relocated and confirmed, word spread quickly throughout the birding networks. Fortunately, I was home and able to get out and see this wonderful bird the following day. After a bit of searching, the bird was relocated, and friends and I were able to enjoy it for about fifteen minutes or so before we lost sight of it. During that time, I was able to get a voice recording of it as well as some pictures. A wonderful bird in a wonderful place! 

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mops and Porcupine Trees

Meet the Mop Twins. While traveling through the Texas Hill Country a few weeks back, I stopped in Leakey (pronounced LAKE-EE) for a great meal at Vinny's Italian Restaurant. Outside were three mops and a broom. I thought to myself, that would make an amusing album (CD) cover. Below is detail of two of the mops.

The next day, while birding at Lost Maples State Natural Area, we came across a tree with a resting porcupine, making it for a moment at least, a porcupine tree.

There are some fantastic sights in west Texas and the Hill Country. It was a treat to get back there.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Turning Free-tail for home

I've been going to the bat cave near Concan, Texas nearly annually since 1989, so I thought that there was little that would surprise me when it came to observing the spectacle of the evening departure of millions of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. But as it turns out, we had some stormy weather this year which dropped temperatures into the 50's and created some high winds. Would the bats come out at all? Sure enough, they eventually started out. After some twenty minutes of bats streaming out, the most amazing thing happened. Bats that had departed earlier began plummeting out of the sky at tremendous speed directly toward the entrance to the cave. Some of these would then get caught up in the departing stream again before pealing off to complete their return. They were actually aborting their night flight. They flooded in by the thousands, and soon the departing stream disappeared all together and the last several thousand returned to the warmth of the cave. Wow!

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Forked Tale

This past week I have been down in south Texas doing my annual spring tours there. This year, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was discovered the week prior to my visit. Each and every day since its arrival at the Lennox Southmost Nature Conservancy property southeast of Brownsville, the flycatcher would put in regular morning appearances.  With special arrangements made for birders to gain access to this normally off-limits site, I decided to try and see this rare find. The day of our visit finally arrived - along with a powerful cold front. For the first morning since it arrived, the flycatcher went unseen. Bummer! To make things worse, we found out later that evening that it had been seen in the afternoon!  Fortunately, the next morning I got a call giving us permission to make a second visit. Since we were nearby, we decided to go.  One of the first birds to greet us was the spectacular Swallow-tailed Kite. We watched as two of them performed some amazing aerial acrobatics. A little while later, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher darted across the resaca with a similar bird trailing behind. There it was! The Fork-tailed Flycatcher! We spent the next half hour enjoying the antics of this rare visitor from South America. The was a first for me for this species north of Mexico. The icing on the day was a visit to the yard of Allen Williams in Pharr, where we were treated to excellent views of White-throated Robin and a singing Clay-colored Robin. Sweet!

Friday, March 14, 2008

The trail of birds

It has been a bit peculiar this week in that encounters with deceased or dying birds have been much more frequent than normal for me.  While traveling around western Panama, I have so far seen dead Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove.  On top of that, I had a Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher die in my hands.  But not all has been dire.  Today we had excellent views of Resplendent Quetzals, exploring nest cavities near Volcan Baru.  So the cycle of life continues.  

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Birding in Panama

Well, entering into the world of blogging in earnest, I find myself snug in my bed after a great day of birding in the highlands of western Panama.  I have been in Panama for nearly three weeks now, and have had all sorts of exciting sightings.  During my visit, I was able to finally connect with three long time nemesis birds of mine - Pheasant Cuckoo, Speckled Mourner, and Spotted Rail.  The rail created quite a stir as it turns out, since it has been a while since this species has been seen in the country.  All of the local birders have been out to see them now.  This afternoon had a bittersweet moment.  While enjoying a plethora of wonderful highland birds, I watched a Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher come crashing into a glass window nearby, and witnessed its death minutes later while nestled in my hands.