Friday, October 26, 2007

Alabama Raptor Sightings

Raptors are my favorite group of birds, and we saw many of them in Alabama. One of the sites on the Alabama Birding Trail is behind a restaurant on Mobile Bay in Daphne, AL. We pulled in one afternoon for a look, and someone who did not look like a birder at all, sitting in a car in the parking lot, commented that there was often a Bald Eagle in the tree below. We did see Bald Eagles right over downtown Fairhope, and also on a lake in Dauphin Island, but I got no pictures. The Northern Harrier lived up to its common name of Marsh Hawk as it swooped low over several marshes we visited, its white rump flashing in the sun. I've never seen a Merlin before, but we sighted one high in a tree. They are smaller than the Peregrine Falcon and have no sideburns as most falcons do.
While at Dauphin Island we saw two Peregrines, however, flying around chasing each other. If this had been another time of year, I would have described this as courting behavior, but not in October. Ospreys dove in the water or perched in the tree tops watching for fish. One sat by an empty nest along the Blakely River until becoming disturbed by the jet skis and other loud boaters. The noise chased us away too. A family with small children came by and looked at the Osprey in the scope. It was the first time they'd ever seen a raptor up close and personal, and the kids were properly impressed.
My favorite raptor for this trip was an American Kestral, since he posed in a tree close enough for photos. Although raptors aren't as numerous as other birds, they will usually be found in the same area if you keep a sharp eye out for them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lifetime List Additions

Birders are know for list keeping. They might have a back yard list, or a favorite birding site list, or a vacation list. All those lists added together make a Lifetime List. This list is zealously kept, since it gives bragging rights among other birders when you find that bird you have searched 10 years for. Of course, I can't get photos of every new bird. The Magnificent Frigatebird we saw was too high up for my camera to catch, but it was great to see how if differed from the usual Cormorants. The Clapper Rail called from the reeds, but would not come out of hiding for anything. The Gulf Coast has many different habitats for birds so many of our firsts are birds very unlikely to come to Kentucky. This Sedge Wren was in a thicket of reeds and brush. Nelson's Sharp Tailed Sparrow and the Seaside Sparrow quickly popped their heads up when the tour guide used his bird caller to lure them into taking a look. They disappeared into the marsh grass just as quickly, but we did see them so it counts. Warblers are always a challenge. The Bird Fest folks tried to level the field by pouring bird feed in one place they knew the warblers like to come to anyway. We added a Brown-headed Nuthatch, Tennessee Warbler, Yellow Throated Warbler, Black and White Warbler, and a Louisiana Warbler to the Life List. The banding station closed down due to lack of activity and a rapidly approaching storm front.
Our new coastal birds include Semi-Palmated Plover (a Killdeer-like bird with one throat band instead of two), Piping Plover, American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstone, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Dunlin (with a downcurved bill), Royal and Forster Terns, and Black Skimmer.
The Skimmers were preening on a sandbar, and I didn't get to see any of them actually skimming the surface. However, I was the successful bidder on a photo of just that at the silent auction. This was immediately after I told Dick I wouldn't bid on anyone else's photos - until I saw one that blew me away.
The final habitat was a long slough next to the bridge approach. We were headed for a spot on the Alabama Birding Trail formed by a hazardous waste site, believe it or not. We had to sign releases and fax them over first, then couldn't even find the entry point, unless it was up that road six inches deep in mud. We decided to pass and just see what we could find on our own. It was starting to rain again when we found the slough with White Ibis (mature and juvenile), a Glossy Ibis (looking black in the gloom), Black Necked Stilt, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Dunlin. We were proud that we found these on our own, and used the overpass to stay out of the rain. The dry sand under the overpass also had some great animal tracks - a Bobcat, we think, several birds, and a lizard leaving a long tail mark in the sand.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Alabama Coastal BirdFest

I am an official hard core birder now, having just attended the recent Alabama Coastal BirdFest, held on Mobile Bay in Alabama. Each morning at 6:30 am, we climbed onto a large tour bus to drive down to the rivers, bayous, marshes and ocean around Mobile Bay. It rained over 9 inches the first day, and we saw more mosquitoes than birds, but went back for the second trip any way. You could see the storm fronts crossing the bay, and we were glad for a nice dry bus when they arrived. Everyone was interested in birds, and very helpful to those who were not expert, pointing out the warblers in the branches and the subtle differences between small shore birds. When asked what birds we would like to find, I answered the Purple Galinule, which we did not see this year, but we added many other new birds to our "life" list. The experts were great help, but we were more proud of the birds we found and identified on our own. On one trip, the group sighted 67 different species, while the next day's group total was 56 species. Dick and I didn't count anything the group saw that we could not find, but still came up with 86 confirmed species that we personally saw in a five day period. As with most birding efforts, some of my photos are terrific, and others a little blurred due to the distance. This will be the first of several posts inspired by this trip. As always, just click on a picture to see a larger version.
We had one American Pelican at the Falls this summer, and everyone was excited to see it. They winter on the Gulf Coast, and we saw the V's of Pelicans coming in by the hundreds at Bayou La Batre. They even napped on a sandbar right off the city pier in Daphne. When nap time was over, they flew to the water, and floated or swam to another island out in the bay in a short time, looking like masses of white marker buoys in the distance.
The Brown Pelicans always put on a show. They can be so graceful when flying in formation, yet so awkward looking when they come in for a landing. Our last night in Daphne, we went to the pier where we had so much luck before, and saw the Brown Pelicans actively feeding, diving into the water with lots of splashing. Unfortunately, it started to rain, and I didn't want my camera and binoculars to get soaked, so we headed back instead of staying to watch. Better rain gear is on my wish list for Christmas. The Gulf Coast has been hard hit by hurricanes in the last five years, yet people keep building back in the same places for the most part. We saw houses tilting on their pylons, waiting for the insurance claims to be settled, two years after Katrina. Only the empty lots remain from other houses. A sand berm was built along the shore on Dauphin Island, intended to give people time to get away before being washed out to sea. Part of the berm was washed away by the thunderstorms alone, leaving a gap like a missing tooth in the wall of sand. The road along this barrier island was flooded. Our big tour bus got water in the electrical system and stalled out in a huge puddle in the road. It's beautiful along the ocean, but Dick and I concluded it would be better financially for the people and ecologically for the birds and the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse, if only camping were allowed there, and no permanent structures. Philosophy aside, we plan to go back to Gulf Shores and make our own birding trips to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island some year for the spring migration.