Friday, October 31, 2008

More at the Shore

Back to Dauphin Island today, with a side trip to Bayou La Batre. We managed to find the places we had visited with the Bird Fest last year, but did not see the same birds, missing American Pelicans, Oyster Catchers, Avocets, and Ibis of any color. Long sessions with Lillian Stokes' Beginners Guide to Shorebirds, with serious page flipping and second guessing, comparing the (to us) identical birds, led to some exciting conclusions that did not always hold up when I enlarged the photos I took from a long distance. Dauphin Island's public beach on the west end of the island had the most shorebirds along its sandbars and small tidal pools. We think we saw Dunlin, Solitary Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plover. We know there were Willets, Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones.

Great Blue Herons sometimes stand in the water, and sometimes meditate in the sea oats on shore. We saw one bird doing a dance in the shallow pool, actually chasing the fish! Never saw a Heron do that before, we mused. As I looked at the photos, however, I thought this bird did not really look like a heron, despite the long legs and neck. The bill was not yellow on the bottom, there were no stripes on the head, and it just looked smaller than usual. Could it be a Little Blue Heron instead? I had just wished we could see a Reddish Egret sometime, and hallelujah, the field guide illustrated this Egret "dancing while feeding!" That has to be it! Whoo-hoo! Another Lifer for us!
The raptors did not let us down today either. This Red Tailed Hawk perched in a high snag and posed in the breeze. A Harrier soared behind a tree, landing for a few seconds, then going on to more important places. His white belly shone in the setting sun, and if only he had lingered a few more seconds, I would have had a great shot.

We are leaving for Kentucky in the morning, so let me take one last chance to rant on about people who insist on building houses on sandbars. West Dauphin Island is just that - a perfectly flat sandbar. No trees, no dune grass, nothing to stop the wind and waves during a storm. Yet idiots continue to build houses there. Today we tried to get to that end of the island, and had to give up. They have snow in upstate New York. The sand in Alabama looks like big snow drifts and digging equipment shovels it up and big trucks haul it God knows where. The only sign of progress was all the empty lots with For Sale signs before them. Maybe folks are finally figuring out that is isn't very smart to build on a sandbar! Duhh!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dauphin Island Birding

The ferry runs between Ft. Morgan and Dauphin Island each day. When we arrived early this morning, we weren't the first at the dock, as you can see. Now that the wind has died down, it was a very pleasant trip. Dauphin Island is another Globally Important Birding site, and we had a great time wandering around the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, exploring the maritime forests, dunes, lakes and marshes.

We found another lifer - some Semipalmate Sandpipers - at least I sure hope that's what we are seeing here. The Ruddy Turnstones were real cuties.

A Great Blue Heron caught half a fish! Apparently the fishermen catch a large fish, fillet it and throw the head and tail back in. This guy was trying so hard to swallow this huge half fish, and finally got it down. Talk about determination!

Why do people insist on building and rebuilding on the same site after it gets blown away by hurricanes? The Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium showed exhibits about the changes in the water level over thousands of years, and the movement of sand dunes and barrier islands. You can see the dead trees in the dunes that used to be part of the forest. Sure, I know, it's fun to be at the beach, but I think there oughta be a law that you can only camp at the beach! People are such fools sometimes. I guess I just get crabby about this, and leave crabby footprints in the sand thinking about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Birding Expectations

Expectations are funny things. If you expect a lot, you can be disappointed sometimes. If you don't expect much, you may not try as hard. Since we were here last year, I had an idea of what to look for, and honestly, we've been a bit disappointed, in both the number of species and individuals found so far. The Alabama Birding Trail hasn't always resulted in much. This year's birding festival was last week -- can a week make such a difference? The weather turned cold and extra windy, and I'm not sure if this makes the birds stay put or what. Also, we have stayed on the beach and the coast instead of the inland marshy areas for the most part, so that may make a difference too. We have seen quite a few warblers, but without an expert, all I can do is say - Oh, there's another warbler! Actually identifying them is pretty tough. Same with any smaller shore birds. I recognize the Willets and Sanderlings with confidence, but anything else is just a guess. Maybe sometime I should ask Santa for a $2,000 Swarovski scope...

However, today we did have some pretty nice finds, though not the ones we expected, around Perdido Bay. A terrific boardwalk led over the dunes and I got some real postcard photos. Maybe someday I can make a lot of money selling photos to the gift shops! Dick says this Heron was hiding in the sea oats for fasting and meditation! An Osprey circled us for a while, and I'm learning the tricks with my new camera, so these turned out pretty well. A pod of 8-10 dolphins swam up and down the channel, for some shots I usually don't see.

We've become fascinated with tracks in the sand, both human and otherwise. Today I saw some unusual prints that looked like a really really small car tire tread, but they were under water along the bank. As I looked, a sea shell moved along the bottom, and I realized a hermit crab was in it, making the tracks we saw!

Before leaving this spot on the Birding Trail, we heard some action in the brush and went to investigate, adding a Swamp Sparrow to our life list. The really strange find was a large (robin sized) bird with a yellow belly, and brown and buff stripes on its head. The more I looked, the more I thought it was a Meadow Lark. What do you think? Maybe a juvenile, or just in nonbreeding feathers. How did this guy get to the swamp by a lagoon so close to the ocean? I know Alabama has agricultural areas that would be great for it, but I think he got turned down the wrong road!

Got Bugs?

"Won't you step inside for a bite?" said the pitcher plant to the bug.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Squeaky Toy in the Tree

Pelicans are such a joy to watch! They are awkward looking in the water, but soar with such precision. They fly in formation, playing follow the leader, flapping in time and swooping up and down, seeing how close they can get to the water. Today, they just concentrated on fishing and stuffing their bellies, which were holding plenty, believe me! What's not to love about live Pterodactyls flying by!

What bird sounds like a child's squeaky bath toy? Give up? We finally decided that all that racket was coming from 10-12 Bluebirds in a large pine tree. Other noise makers included some bright yellow Magnolia Warblers, and a drabber warbler that looked like a Pine Warbler (and it was in a pine tree, right?) When a Kestrel suddenly appeared, the noise levels escalated, although Kestrels don't eat anything this big. When the Harrier soared by, all the little birds disappeared into the branches!

Three layers of clothes and it's still really cold here along the Gulf Coast, but the bright sunshine makes you feel better about it. Following the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail through Baldwin County, we started at a mariculture facility (like a fish farm), but most of the birds thought it was too cold to be out too. We did find one Spotted Sandpiper (another life bird), which bobbed its tail the whole time we saw it, thus matching the identification in the Stokes' Shorebird book.

Weeks Bay Estuary has a great observation platform at the end of a boardwalk through the southern forest and marsh. I love the labels on unfamiliar trees and ferns. We also found an unlabeled giant spider - at least 2 inches long - which I have been unable to identify so far. A Kestrel sped past, and caught a dragonfly on the wing as Dick watched. "Maybe that's why the big dragonflies don't land often - they don't want to be Kestrel krunchies!" He flew a couple victory laps, just to show off. An immature Bald Eagle landed in a nearby tree, while an Osprey perched across the bay. The raptors continue to be our favorites on this trip, but that's to be expected, right?

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Sands of Time

Why does the beach always make me thoughtful? Is it because I come to the beach so seldom, and it's always something special in my life? Does it make me think about the eternal nature of the ocean and shore, and my own ephemeral existence?

Today, we walked along the pristine beach at Bon Secour NWR, a spot sheltered from commercial activity, and too remote for casual beach walkers. It was like being the first people on a newly discovered land. There were no human footprints. The wind blew little mini-dunes in the sand. No beer cans. No tire tracks. No volleyball nets. The road itself was half gone. Only the birds left footprints, and they ignored us for the most part. The Ruddy Turnstone was more interested in an afternoon bath. The shells had both the top and bottom halves still together, and were propped upright in the sand. We saw the prints of a large feline earlier in the morning - a bobcat? The Alabama Beach Mouse is an endangered species, and we searched for small tracks that might belong to one. We saw tunnels under the sand and have no idea what creature made it.

As we walked up over the dunes to a spot listed on the Birding Trail, I commented that we would be able to easily find our way back to the car since ours were the only tracks around. To my surprise, after only 15 minutes at the bog, our footprints were already blowing away! If we had stayed for an hour, they would have been gone completely. Humankind is like that, leaving a mark on the world, or making a mess of things, rather than just a mark. Then mother nature has to clean up after us. On the beach, she's a pretty determined house keeper.

Ft. Morgan Raptors

Once again, weather is not actually changing history, but it does affect our vacations. A dry cold front arrived in the Gulf area overnight, dropping the temperature and whipping the wind in gusts that felt like 40 mph (although the Weather Channel says they were only 18 mph.) Cold, even with a sweatshirt. Brrrr! Tomorrow doesn't look any better. At Bon Secour NWR, we saw a Heron fighting to land in a tree and "treading" air to reach for the branch. With a squawk of frustration, he eventually dropped down to the water as the easier alternative.

Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay is our next stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, and just right down the road from our condo. The sign notes that this site is Internationally important. Its wooded areas give shelter and food to migrating birds going both north and south every year. With the wind pushing us around, I felt a great sympathy for the poor little birds trying to fight their way through the air. Near the Fort itself, we struggled and finally gave up, eating lunch in the car, instead of exploring more. Yet in the "Middle Ground" and the "Stables" area, I could share the relief birds must feel. The pine trees broke the power of the wind, and reflected the sun to the ground, warming the sheltered area. Enormous old live oaks provided even more sheltered space in their branches and leaves. We saw warblers -- we think they were Yellow, Magnolia and Louisiana Waterthrushes-- along with a vocal group of Bluebirds and Blue Jays.
The Fort Morgan area is known for hawks migrating through as well, and we really hit the jackpot today with raptors. Unlike the songbirds, the raptors seemed to enjoy the strong winds, soaring gracefully through the air. We saw Merlins, American Kestrels and Harrier, all from the warmth of our car in the parking lot! The strong wind made it easy for the Kestrels to "kite", hovering in one place without moving a wing. Then they landed on a phone line to search for another tidbit in the mowed grass. The Harrier swooped close to the ground, as usual, showing his white rump when he turned for another attack. The Merlins would soar nearby, then disappear, only to pop up again down the road. A Red Tailed Hawk enjoyed the gusts, causing me to have a big case of BIADD (Bird Induced Attention Deficit Disorder)! Good thing there wasn't much traffic on the road, because I drove slowing and stopped whenever something interesting appeared.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Life Bird at Gulf Shores

We enjoyed the Gulf Coast Birding Festival in Mobile, AL, so much last year, that we decided to come back ourselves this year for more birding. There were only so many trips we could take during that weekend, so we will followup with the Alabama Birding Trail for spots we missed before. We would get up early to board a bus and drive an hour to the Gulf Shore during the festival. Why waste time on a bus both directions? We have a terrific time share on the beach and a full week of great weather and birding in Alabama to look forward to.

As we drove through the resort town of Gulf Shores, we saw the Wade Ward Nature Park right in the middle of town. After settling in at the condo, we headed to take a look. The sign warns of penalties for feeding the alligator, including up to six months incarceration. Well, I guess that depends on what part of the body is fed to the gator, doesn't it? Look, there's a little duck in the reeds, I notice. On closer examination, it isn't a duck at all, but has a large downcurved bill and chicken type feet that allow it to walk on the reeds. The field guide confirms our lifetime sighting of a Clapper Rail. The Birding Trail entry comments that the Ward Park "offers ideal habitat for bitterns and rails." Pretty exciting for the first day!
The boardwalk has many interesting opportunities in a few steps. Some kind of seed eating critter used the boardwalk to do his business. I'll have to ask Swampy about this. Could easily be a raccoon or possum. Two mystery bugs sun on the rail.
The most numerous flying creatures are dragonflies darting back and forth. Although I dearly want to take some photos of them, the only chance I may have is if one of the flies before me while I'm aiming at something else. And how about that! It happened!
By 6:00 the sun went down, making dramatic reflections in the water.
On the drive south, we expected heavy rain all day. However, we caught the trailing edge only. The sky was dark, dark purple, with thin white clouds scudding across. So dark, in fact, that the photo looks like a nice blue sky with fluffy white clouds.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Down in the Pit

The Falls of the Ohio are famed for having Devonian fossil beds exposed and easily visible. The volunteers, or Naturalists-at-Heart, work hard learning about fossils while training, and for years after. No one is allowed to collect rocks or fossils within the park. It's not too surprising, then, that one of our favorite activities is going fossil hunting at nearby Hanson Quarry, with our resident geologist Alan Greenberg to help make identifications.

Living on the surface of the earth, most people give little thought to what lies beneath their feet. This rock quarry has a pit that must be 200 feet deep--wish I could judge distances better. It's enough to make my stomach drop. I'm very careful not to get close to the edge. In fact, Alan warned us sternly not to get within a car's length of the high wall today, since they were actually working with big rock moving equipment right above our heads. He didn't want one of us to get squashed if a piece of equipment tipped over the edge! I can't really comprehend the amount of time it took for mud and debris and dead animals to fall to the bottom of the ocean, get covered by more mud and debris and dead animals, over and over, to make rock this deep. I know it goes deeper than what we see here, but this is quite enough to blow me away, thank you.

When it rains, you cake mud on your boots about six inches deep. Today was dry and cool, perfect weather for fossil hunting. The best fossils are usually found in rocks that weigh over 40 pounds, too big to carry home. We find enough corals, brachiopods and crinoids to make for a good day. Every year some lucky Heart finds a really cool trilobite. Again, I was not that lucky person this year, but that's why I keep going back! Alan says there is a "bone yard" area which has small fish bones and scales in it. You would not recognize them as bones at all, they look more like small flecks of black rock.

Leaving the quarry, I spotted a large Red Tailed Hawk perched in a dead tree. Hey, do we know how to have fun or what?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Big Sit at the Falls of the Ohio

The Beckham Bird Club in Louisville, joined The Big Sit sponsored by Bird Watchers Digest yesterday. Our club sat at the Falls of the Ohio, in a circle made from an orange extension cord, (clever, I thought) from 9 am to 6 pm. The Falls are a good place for bird watching in general, since it has shore and water birds along the Ohio River, woodland areas for forest birds, an area with feeders, and the possibility of seeing various raptors. The Falls has resident Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys.

By the time Dick and I arrived at 3 pm, the hot sun (a record 87 degrees) made the water sparkle like millions of diamonds. Very pretty, but also very difficult for birding. I just purchased a new broad brimmed birding hat, and baptized it at the Big Sit. Our group recorded 44 species till then, but no raptors at all. Some watched across the water through scopes, but hikers on the fossil beds scattered the few birds crazy enough to come out in the heat. Others watchers turned towards the woods with binoculars. Hurricane Ike blew the tops out of many trees, and we gazed hopefully at the bare limbs. The only ducks we saw were Mallards (pronounced Ma-llard with a French accent - it makes them feel special.) Even the vultures had gone someplace else. Overall, it was not an encouraging time. We weren't allowed to count the Great Brown-tailed UPS birds (you've seen it - big, silver body, and brown tail) that flew over constantly during the afternoon.

Then, out of the blue, a huge kettle of Black Vultures filled the sky, wheeling and soaring overhead. Of course, we scanned them, hoping to see a not-Vulture in the crowd. I see something white, but it isn't a wingtip. It's a tail. The bird turns a bit more. Now I see what looks like a white head. Let's see, large, dark body, white tail, white head -

omigosh! IT'S A BALD EAGLE!!!

I start to shout and jump around, unable to describe where the bird can be seen, but fortunately the other Beckham people are good birders, and they quickly find it too. Corroboration! Now, I'll admit, I pulled this picture from some older files. I wasn't fast enough yesterday to take a picture of our Eagle on the wing. As it passed behind the Interpretive Center, and reappeared on the other side, we saw another large group of birds in a straggling V formation. Sandhill Cranes! someone shouts. Sorry, not this time. I did not know that Cormorants travel in big Vs, but that's what they were. Later the Cormorants landed on the river for a little snack and to spend the night.

When we packed it up for the day, our total species count was a round 50. Click the link to see what species we spied. We did finally see the Peregrine and a Red Tailed Hawk. The Osprey decided to stay at his favorite fishing grounds downstream apparently. Ah well, there's always next year.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Boy, things have been really busy the last two weeks. Our daughter got married on Sept. 27, so things were in a turmoil. Actually, it went well. They'd been planning for a year. But when you get down to the last few weeks, you start worrying about things you may have forgotten, waking in the middle of the night for no good reason, and yawning all day. The wedding was beautiful. All the women went to the hairdressers to get beautiful - a real Steel Magnolias morning. Everyone cried through the ceremony. The flower girl and ring bearer waited until after the ceremony to throw up. Some stomach thing was going around. What more could the mother of the bride ask?

Bad things usually come in threes, and our three bad things weren't too bad. Hurricane Ike blew through two weeks before, and although my daughter and son lost power, we were OK at our house. Our sister in Houston didn't get to come due to looting and no power though. The groom's father was in ICU during the first part of September, but attended the wedding. Hooray! My car was in an accident the week of the wedding, and since it was eight years old anyway, the insurance company just wrote us a check. So I now have a new son-in-law, a new car, a new camera, and a new cell phone.

The moon is in its Cheshire Cat phase right now, in a clear fall sky. I couldn't resist going for some sunset/moonrise photos at the Falls of the Ohio. After all the recent stress, it was great to relax and calm down with a little moon watching.