Friday, June 13, 2014

Warblers at Howell Woods

I finally got a chance to visit Howell Woods in Johnson County this past week. I was astonished with the amazing habitat diversity at Howell Woods from bottomland forests to longleaf pine forests, all within one property. It is a breeding sight to a few noteworthy warblers such as Kentucky Warblers and one of the least observed North American birds, the Swainson's Warbler. I have missed many opportunities to take trips down here with my friends, so I jumped at the opportunity when I got in contact with a family friend, Gary, who wanted to find a good place to see Swainson's and Kentucky Warblers.

 Our morning began with dim light at 6:00 a.m. strolling down the dirt road at Howell woods. We were greeted by an Indigo Bunting singing on an exposed pine tree and continued to our first trail recommended by my friends, Outside Slough. I wiped another layer of sticky bug spray across my arm to combat the cloud of thirsty mosquitoes buzzing by my ear for a drink. We were both standing on the trail cupping our ears at our first song of a Kentucky Warbler with Yellow-billed Cuckoos chuckling in the crown of the trees.
Copperhead on the side of the trail

As we made our way farther down the trail, the Kentucky Warbler's churee came closer and closer. We played a call back and eventually one came in close enough for a shot.

You can just barely see his "side burns"

 We eventually heard a Swainson's Warbler singing, but after much patience and anticipation we had no luck and tried a different trail. We tried a more appropriately named trail to fit our needs, Warbler Way.
The trail had very little activity and we were both getting very anxious to catch a decent glimpse of a Swainson's. The trails were surrounded by canebrake that is prime breeding habitat for Swainson's Warblers.
Forest floor covered in dense canebrake, a factor that contribute to difficult views of Swainson's
At the end of the trail, we ended up on a dirt road called Plantation Rd. The trees were spaced more and proved to be helpful with visibility. Gary played a recording and suddenly a brown blur fluttered around in the top of the tree, bingo! Swainson's Warbler! After a quick glance with my binoculars, I wrestled my camera out of the bag and got plenty of shots. The Swainson's Warbler So, so, so, sweet to hear song pierced through the humid air and clouds of mosquitos right in front of our eyes, an experience I will never forget.

After our climax of the whole trip disappeared into the forest, we explored some other habitats in the park. We came across some early successional habitat of mixed pine and scrub oak that was loaded with Common Yellowthroats, White-eyed Vireos, and Prairie Warblers. Further down the path, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird was perched on a snag with the sun hitting its iridescent throat.

 We ran into a Yellow-throated Warbler at the pond and a Yellow-breasted Chat in some of the pines. We even encountered an interesting mammal, a Fox Squirrel.
Fox Squirrel

White-eyed Vieo

White-eyed Vireo
Overall, I left Howell Woods with two lifers and a newfound birding location I will take many trips too.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lowcountry Birding: Perplexing Peeps and My Outset

The Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend had a soothing feel on the beach with calm waves melting gently over the sand and soft rays of sunshine only comforting my skin. Suddenly, I began reminiscing in nostalgic memories after I finally felt I was really in Debordieu, SC; the place where this crazy liking of birds began. It first started with a Peterson's Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America sitting on the shelf over my grandad's desk at our beach house. I ran outside with a pair of binoculars and the field guide, and identified a Great Crested Flycatcher. What intrigued me was the puzzle of identification that came with each species and the knowledge of a whole other feathered world living around me. After the interest struck up by the flycatcher four years ago, every family vacation I spent birding and learning new species. I took this interest home and return several times a year to Debordieu and so far have seen rarities like a Western Kingbird, done a big day with my two birding friends, and continue rejoice in learning about birds, something Debordieu has always done with its marshes and beaches.

I returned my attention to the two mile walk south along the shore to the North Inlet( walking south to get North?) where I found Wilson's Plovers last year. The tall and stocky Willets were very vocal and Sanderlings were scurrying through the surf. Things really started to get fun when I peeked over a sand dune to my surprise and found a group of Whimbrels! It didn't stop there, I found another group at the inlet too!

An American Oystercatcher photo bomb! Birds tend to have that habit (Rufous-necked Wood Rail).

They are large, stocky shorebirds with a noticeably decurved bill, a personal favorite and the best view I've ever had. Eventually, I ran into two Wilson's Plover, which I found their nests where thankfully protected around the inlet.
Male Wilson's Plover
Glad to see this in place
Once I arrived at the Inlet, I was greeted by a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a Sanderling in its brick red breeding plumage and a gorgeous Black-bellied Plover feeding. I came across an identification that always stumps me as well as other birders: Peeps, a group of small shorebirds in the Calidris genus that appear very similar if not looked at closely. The main three are Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers. I encountered Semipalmated and even confused it with a Sanderling, another member of the the genus, still in a white plumage. 

Sanderling, breeding plumage wearing out from last September at DeBordieu.

To solve the problem, I stop and take as many photos as I can. This is the best way to learn because you can return home and stare at the the bird as long as you want and not worry about it flying off. 

Looking at the Calidris shorebirds birds I saw this weekend, I eliminated Least Sandpiper because the birds did not have yellow legs and were not in a LESA's preferred habitat of more mudflats were I usually encounter them.

This leaves Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper(SESA), and Western Sandpiper(WESA). Typically, WESAs are only a winter resident in the US and aren't found in the Spring by May, only SESAs are found in the spring in the US migrating North.

 Here are some other good field marks I used:

Overall Size and Shape: Sanderlings are stocky and much larger than the three main peeps. WESAs and SEWAs appear the same size in the field. WESA's head will look proportionally larger and flattened at the top. A SESA's head appears rounder. These field marks are best distinguished when the two species are beside one another. 

Plumage: This time of year, Sanderlings will be in their brick, red breeding plumage. I saw some individuals still blech white, I'm guessing they are just juveniles. If not in breeding plumage, they will be mostly washed in white with gray and dark specks on back, wings, and top of head.
Sanderling in breeding plumage, notice the brick red covering the head and entirely side of neck.

Sanderling in nonbreeding plumage.
SESA's are a mainly black and white with some brown on there back maybe a slight rufous on face. They are lightly streaked on the breast with none on their flanks. WESA's are heavily streaked, have more arrow-like streaks on the flanks, and a stronger rufous on head and cheeks.

No streaking on flanks of this Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Bill Shape is one of the most reliable ways to distinguish SESA and WESA. SESA's bill is straight and tubular where a WESA's bill ( I think it can almost resemble the shape of a Dunlin) droops at tip. SESA's bill are shorter; however females' bills are longer than the males and can appear to be the same as a WESA in the field. 
Thicker and straighter bill of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Hind Toes. Sanderlings do not have hind toes, SESA and WESA do. Hind toes can be hard to notice in the field, so a photograph of the feet would be best to confirm whether there is a hind toe. When they are running and you have a side view of the peep is the best way to see the hind toe. This field mark is most helpful if you struggle with distinguishing Sanderlings from WESA, SESA, and LESA. 
Semipalmated Sandpipers with a hind toe.
My next stop was to another local birding Hotspot, Huntington Beach State Park, that is a thirty minute drive North on Highway 17. The park has a large diversity of habitats. First you enter the park on the causeway with a saltmarsh side and a freshwater side called Mullet Pond. Then you have the inlet with a mile and a half of beach and dunes. I arrived too late in the day for the saltmarsh to be productive for rails. I headed straight to the Inlet and encountered a pair of Least Terns, with one offering a fish to its mate.
Least Terns, a threatened bird in this area. 
I got to the end of the crowded beach and decided not to attempt to look around on the jetty due to the many fishermen. I continued behind the sand dunes and spotted a Gull-billed Tern fly by and more Whimbrels behind the sand dunes. However, I never found the Common Ground Dove I wanted to see. The marsh had a lot of Semipalmated Plovers foraging around. Next, I encountered a winter resident, the Common Loon in breeding Plumage! Also, a Red-breasted Merganser and a White-winged Scoter all in the inlet. All those are very  late this time time of year and should be up North in their breeding grounds. 
Common Loon in breeding plumage.
Red-breasted Merganser left and White-winged Scoter right.
Next, I headed to the observation deck at Mullet Pond. It was full of surprises. It was quiet for the first minute then all of a sudden a Black-necked Stilt popped out of no where.

Then a female Wood Duck appeared with almost twenty duckling! And I thought having two siblings was tough.

The best surprise was a Least Bittern that flushed from the marsh grass. Least Bitterns are often to shy to give up their cover emerged in marsh grass. Huntington never disappoints.

Playful Otters
I ended the weekend at DeBordieu the next day. I explored a dirt road that extends into the marsh with a small canal parallel to the road bordering a mix forest of a wildlife refuge. Once I stepped onto the road, a group of Wild Turkeys jolted away across the canal. All of a sudden, my eyes met with a Raccoon foraging along the bank. Then I heard a snort and splash greeted by two heads popping out of the water. It was a playful pair of Otters!
"Uh, What are you doing here?"

 The canal had a myriad of songbirds playing their tunes. A Prothonotary Warbler made itself loud and clear with a beautiful view of its golden plumage. A female Painted Bunting was sitting on an exposed branch singing as well.
Female Painted Bunting
 DeBordieu and Georgetown County always show me amazing birds and really are the outset of my birding.
Wild Turkey