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Friday, August 31, 2012

A Late Summer Walk at Little Estero Lagoon

Little Estero Lagoon is an Important Bird Area (IBA) on the Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida. Offering ideal coastal habitat with sandy beaches, brackish lagoons, and expansive mudflats. It is excellent for snowy plover, oystercatchers, herons, larids and shorebirds. While parts of it are a designated Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), it faces disturbance and threats from small mobs of beachgoers, pet owners, and recreational fishermen. This is especially true when snowy plover and least tern nest.

It is easily possible to spend 3 to 4 hours birding this area at any time of the year. Variety increases in migration, and I was hoping to find my target species for the day: Hudsonian Whimbrel and Red Knot and, fortunately, Little Estero did not disappoint.

Hiding amongst a dozen godwit [upper right] were 3 whimbrel [left]. The godwit will stay through winter but the whimbrel is strictly a passage migrant. Also seen were Short-billed Dowitcher [lower right] although not nearly in numbers that can be expected later in the season.

Little Estero is also a reliable place for American Oystercatcher [right] and they were found busy feeding on clams and conchs that the high tide washed ashore. The shorebirds [red knot; upper left and black-bellied plover lower right], unlike in Winter, still reflected shades of their alternate plumage.

Superbly camouflaged were snowy plovers [lower left] and basic plumaged red knot [upper right] while a tail-bobbing spotted sandpiper combed the inner lagoon for small grub. Nearby, a reddish egret [upper left] successfully danced for fish.

Other birds seen were the eccentric black skimmer [upper left], a ruddy turnstone [lower right; justifying its moniker] and a common tern [lower left].

Notably absent this early in the season were dunlin and least sandpiper; although small numbers of western sandpiper [upper right] were found. Little Estero never disappoints and should be on every birder's itinerary.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Buff-breasted Sandpiper @ Lake St. Clair Metropark

A buff-breasted sandpiper was reported at Lake St. Clair Metropark (by Kevin R. @ report) and I promptly made plans to bird the area over the weekend. Lake St. Clair Metropark does not have the same status in birding circles as Point Mouillee which teems with shorebirds this time of year (both in numbers and species) but the big advantage of Lake St. Clair is that one can get really quite close to the birds and it's certainly much closer for me to drive to.

Buff-breasteds neither breed nor overwinter in the US and therefore are seen only when flying up from the Southern Hemisphere to the Arctic in Spring; or, as in this case, when they are flying South to Argentina in the Fall. They are classified as "Near Threatened" and populations remain in decline. Still, they have recovered from a near extinction experience in the early 1900's. A sad story for a bird that used to number in the millions.

This calidrid favors grassland and is not coastal in its migration. It can be quite confiding -- find a good place to park yourself and let the bird come to you. In my case, it almost came too close to focus.

This handsome "grasspiper" is a cooperative and photogenic subject and I tried to catch it with 2 distinct backgrounds -- against the grass as well as against the sand to highlight its subtle creamish-beige coloration:

I was also fortunate to run into Kevin at the site and his knowledge of the area and experience in the field proved invaluable. Kevin has also posted some very interesting videos of his finds on YouTube (including Whimbrel, Least Bittern, Baird's and more: video). We were also joined by a fellow birder, Gerry, which made for a very enjoyable birding session. Gerry, who was as keen to see the buff-breasted sandpiper as I was, was lucky to spot the bird after a couple of strong disturbing influences. The first caused by a charging child who delighted in terrorizing the gulls and terns on the shore near which the buff-breasted was foraging. And, the second caused by a couple who unleashed their large recreational mammal into the water to play a game of "fetch". Both incidents, while unfortunate, are part of the balancing of activities that the diversity of visitors inflict upon the park. I pondered whether these incidents could offer a teachable moment to the offenders centered around the hallowed adage: "Take only memories; leave only footprints" but decided against it.

Other birds of interest included Caspian Terns [even in the parking lot!], Pectorals, and lots of Least Sandpipers.

A walk through the adjoining woods yielded a few warblers, a yellow-billed cuckoo, herons (green and great blue) and wood duck.

The other target species for the day -- Baird's Sandpiper -- was not sighted. I quizzed Kevin about this sandpiper but despite a repeat attempt, was unable to find the bird. All in all, a very productive excursion to this gem of a park.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Alcids of Puget Sound Part II

After a productive 24 hrs on Whidbey Island, I referenced "Birding Washington" by Rob and Natalie McNair-Huff ( for further ideas. Scanning through various options, one that appealed to me instantly was Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge ( This NWR, while off limits to visitors, is an important breeding site for the majority of birds found in Puget Sound.

The first alcid that excited my interest was the Common Murre. This a large auk with a white underside and grey head and body. The juvenals are mostly white.

Of course, the first challenge was how to get to the waters by the island. While the Port Townsend Maritime Center runs weekend tours to the island in the summer, I realized I had just missed the tour offered the day before. One option was joining one of the several whale watch tours knowing that I would probably be the sole passenger hoping for alcid sightings. Instead, I drove from Port Townsend to Sequim and at the John Wayne Marina [yes, the John Wayne], was fortunate enough to charter Livin' the Dream led by Capt. Charles Martin (

The highlight of the trip had to be the tufted puffin. These striking alcids with the enormous bills are relatively uncommonly sighted; with perhaps only 70 breeding pairs.

Completing the alcid review were the rhinoceros auklets and pigeon guillemots which were also seen at Whidbey.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Seeking Alcids in Puget Sound. August 2012.

48 hours in the Seattle area in search of alcids [auks, murres, puffins, and guillemots].

Summer is the time to go for viewing alcids in breeding plumage. Target species were pigeon guillemot and tufted puffin. Both are striking birds The plan was simple -- pray for good weather and bird hotspots in the Puget Sound area -- on Whidbey Island and off Protection Island.

First stop was Whidbey Island. While a bonanza of pigeon guillemots was expected based on the excellent cues provided by Whidbey Audubon:
What was somewhat unexpected was a magnificent rhinoceros auklet:

This auk was seen feeding right in the ferry area, unperturbed by the commotion. The highlights were dominated, naturally, by the guillemots -- noisy, active and surprisingly colorful in jet black plumage with flashes of red.
The all black plumage is a real struggle for the camera -- I tried generous amounts of negative comp, anywhere from -0.3 [too little] to -1.3 [too much] but many images still required post processing correction. The eye-ring seen in the above picture is most prominent when seen from a frontal position. For example, seen from the side, the eye ring is less noticeable:

In terms of sheer visual imagery, it is always a delight to highlight the gape of the mouth:

The early morning sun made exposure more of a challenge. Arriving at dusk the same day, while presenting less of a challenge in terms of getting the blacks right, also somewhat dulled the reds:

Pigeon guillemots are highly gregarious, strong vocalizers, excellent hunters of fish and powerful flyers. They can be seen flying into and out of their burrows at Penn Cove and also at the Port Townsend ferry terminal area where these photographs were taken.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Honsby Bend: A Quartet of Migrating Sandpipers and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Early August and shorebirds are already on the move. A quick visit to central Texas afforded the opportunity to observe 4 of them:

Seen here are Spotted, Least, Semi-palmated and Pectoral sandpipers. The least and semi's are distinguishable by the color of their legs and all of them overwinter in the US. The Pectoral [lower right corner], however, is only a passage migrant. It neither breeds nor overwinters in the US. Favoring the extreme northern reaches of the continent for their breeding grounds, the Pectoral Sandpiper then travels thousands of miles to the south to winter in South America.

This medium-sized calidrid is shown in breeding plumage with the distinct separation of the streaking on its breast.
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 Hornsby Bend, where these shorebirds were observed, is a productive venue for anyone in the Austin area. On another visit, this time in October of 2010, the following additional species were seen:

Green-winged Teal:

Northern Shoveler:

 Ruddy Duck:

 Savannah Sparrow:

 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: