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Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: A Birding Year in Review

Harlequin Ducks
Image Credit: Paul Higgins

As 2010 draws to a close, I sit here in my man cave, banjo at my side, nursing a cold. I was initially planning on hitting the hot spots around town to take in some birds and to make a last gasp attempt to add a few species to my state and county year lists. Instead, I am popping Actifed, wiping snot off my beak, and sipping Earl Grey Tea (the best thing the British ever did!).

Not one to sulk (much), I decided that it would be a good time to review my bird sightings for the year. After birding, thinking about birding is the next best thing! So I pulled up my iTunes play list, hit shuffle, and started sifting though my field notes & eBird records. Turns out I had quite an interesting year!


Common Ground Dove
Image Credit: Phil Jeffrey

I started the year in Florida (trip report) – on Sanibel Island. I had already spent the previous day (Dec 31st) at Ding Darling NWR, where I picked up a few lifers. Early on New Years Day, I hit the beach at first light to hunt for seashells with the kids. Naturally, I bought along my binoculars and spotting scope. Got my first bird of the year – a Common Ground-Dove - in a small patch of dune grass between the beach and the Island Inn. Lots of birds on the beach as well: Sandwich Terns, Sanderlings, Snowy Plovers, White Ibises, etc. The rest of the island was fantastic for birds. Spent a few hours at Ding Darling NWR before hitting the road to Venus...Venus, Florida.

The main purpose of the journey to Venus was to visit Jacque Fresco and Roxanne Meadows of the Venus Project - the activist arm of the Zeitgeist Movement. Following the visit, I managed to do a little birding around the area. The highlights were a Yellow-throated Warbler (a Florida first for me), lots of Sandhill Cranes and a scattering of owl pellets.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Image Credit: Errol Taskin

Then it was back to Kissimmee, the home of fiddling legend Vassar Clements. We stayed in central Florida for a few days. I spent most of the time birding around the numerous lakes in the region, seeing many of the expected water birds: Little Blue Herons, Cattle Egrets, Wood Storks, etc. I also made a diversion to the Disney Wilderness Preserve. The preserve was set aside by Disney as part of a mitigation effort to restore some of the wetlands Disney filled-in to build their sprawling monument to consumerism. The habitat at the preserve is a mix of wetlands, flatwoods, and scrub. My target species were Loggerhead Shrike, Bachman’s Sparrow and the Brown-headed Nuthatch, all of which are year-round residents. The shrike was easy, as they are abundant in the preserve. Unfortunately, I was unbable to locate the sparrow, but I did see a mixed flock of birds that included the Nuthatch, as well as Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers.

Spring Migration in Pennsylvania

Although I continued to casually bird throughout the winter months, I spent most of my time on other pursuits. With the exception of Golden Eagles at the Tussey Mountain Hawkwatch, I did not see much worthy of note. Once spring was in the air, I was back out on a more regular basis.

Red-necked Phalarope
Image Credit: Jeremy Early

For me, the highlights of spring are the migrating shorebirds and the return of the wood warblers. This year was particularly exiting, in that I picked up a few lifers in unexpected places. Most notable are two species of phalaropes, the Wilson’s Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope , which were initially reported by Matt O’Donnell and Drew Weber, respectively, at the Julian Wetlands.

I also attended my first PSO Meeting at Presque Isle on Lake Erie. I spent the weekend birding with many of the state’s most-experienced birders. I certainly learned quite a bit. And I picked-up two more lifers on the trip, a Mouring Warbler and a Prothonotary Warbler.

Summer Birding in Asia

Crested Goshawk
Photo credit: Birding2Asia

Once the kids were out of school, we loaded up the gear and headed across the pond to Taiwan(trip report). In Taiwan, I did most of my birding in two locations in Daliao, Kaohsiung County – the Zhong Zheng rice paddies (photo essay) and the campus of the Taiwan Military Academy. The highlights were the Emerald Dove and Crested Goshawk at the Military Academy, and the Ruddy-breasted Crake and Common Kingfisher at the rice paddies.

We then headed across the strait to mainland China to attend the World Expo in Shanghai and visit family in central China. Again, I bought the binoculars along (trip report). Shanghai was devoid of both birds and culture. It’s like Manhattan without Central Park and Times Square. With the exception of a flying turd – aka Eurasian Blackbird – Shanghai was a forgettable place. The Blackbird was only memorable because it was a lifer for me. Otherwise, it’s a downright ugly bird.

Blue Magpie
Image Credit: Birds of Shanghai

Xi Hu (West Lake) is about an hour or so by train from Shanghai. It’s a popular vacation spot for the locals. Despite the crowds and the urbanization, there were a surprisingly attractive mix of birds to be seen in the area, including Red-billed Starlings and Blue Magpies.

We then headed west to Guilin, in Guanxi Province. The scenery there is breathtaking! The karst mountains are legendary, and have been influential to countless Chinese poets and artists. Birding there was one of the best experiences of the year. The highights were a Dollarbird & Collared Crows along the Li Jiang.

Chinse Pond Heron
Image Credit: Penang Birder

Our next destination was Huangmei, in Hubei Province, for a family reunion. The area where we stayed was pretty rural – dominated by cotton, soy and various vegetable crops. Although I didn’t have much time to bird, I did manage to sneak away and roam the countryside for a few hours with my binos and a copy of Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia (read my book review here). The highlights were Whiskered Terns, Chinese Pond Herons, Long-tailed Shrikes and Yellow-billed Grosbeaks.

Over the course of my stay, I observed 121 species, 25 of which were lifers for me.

Back Home Again

Like John Denver sang, Hey it’s good to be back home again. Although I enjoyed the time in Asia, I was looking forward to getting back state side. Eating food from restaurants and street vendors, sleeping in a different bed everynight, and getting the Chinese version of Montezuma’s Revenge is enough to make anyone long for home. And besides, it was getting close to the start of fall migration. Next to spring migration, fall migration is the best time for birding.

This fall was very productive for birding. It seemed there were a lot more birders out and about finding (and reporting!) lots of interesting birds. Shorebirds were particularly good this year. The highlights were some Baird’s Sandpipers out at Bald Eagle SP (reported by Greg Grove) and Colyer Lake. Colyer also yielded a few Pectoral Sandpipers, as well as Least and Semi-palmated Sandpipers. A few weeks later, a Sanderling turned up on the beach at Bald Eagle.

Image Credit: Arthur Morris

Warblers were also plentiful, with unusually large numbers of several species. The highlight for me was my big fall-out day (report) at Scotia Barrens which occurred, oddly enough, on my birthday. I had over 200 ticks for 18 warbler species in just a few hours.

Perhaps the most interesting sighting I had was a hummingbird that came to my feeders for a few days. In late August, I had an unusual hummingbird with a bright orange gorget, rather than the ruby-red gorget one would expect for the local Ruby-throated Hummer. The hummer also had some rufous spots on its lower back, just above the tail. Turns out that it was one of the Selasphorus hummingbirds (Rufous or Allen’s), but I was unable to pin it down to the species level.

Little Big Year – sort of

Somewhere between the end of summer and the beginning of fall, I realized that I was in striking distance of getting 200 species within the state, and possibly within the limits of Centre County. While not a monumental feat, it would represent a personal milestone for me. Although I don’t consider myself an avid lister or twitcher, I must admit I was a bit enamored with the idea of trying to put together a list for myself. This is undoubtedly the influence from several of the many bird-themed books I read over the past year, such as Kingbird Highway and The Big Year. Anyway, I figured I give it a shot.

Snow Bunting
Image Credit: Tim Zurowski

In order to reach the modest goal, I was gonna have to get lucky. Since I had been away in the summer, I missed a few “easy” birds like the Black-billed Cuckoo. I made a list of the birds I needed and began to search them out, one by one. Thanks to the help of other birders reporting their observations, and some of my own right-place at the right-time luck, I was able to knock quite a few birds off my list, such as Eared Grebe, Black Scoter, White-wing Scoter, Dunlin, Snow Bunting, Rough-legged Hawk, and Harlequin Duck.

I hit the 200 mark for the state on November 1st, thanks to Drew Weber’s report of Black Scoters at Bald Eagle. I finished the year with 214 state birds. The Centre County list was a bit tougher. I entered December needing 9 birds to hit the 200 mark. While I gave it the old college try, I ended up the year a few short of the target. I finished with 196 birds for Centre County.

2010 Summary

Overall, I observed 315 species worldwide, including 36 lifers. That brings my world life list up to 502 species – 340 US birds and 162 birds outside the US.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Zhong Zheng Road Rice Paddies - Summer 2010

I spent part of the summer this year (2010) in Taiwan visiting my in-laws. While there, I did a fair amount of birding as I reported in a previous post. I spent a few hours each day birding along the rice paddies scattered around my in-laws home. I spent the majority of the time at the rice paddies off Zhong Zheng Rd (中正路), just southwest of the Daliao MRT station (map).

Looking north, toward Feng Dong Road

Looking south, toward Zhong Zheng Road

I took a handful of photos by holding my point-and-shoot (Sony DSC-P10) up to the eyepiece of my spotting scope (Pentax PF-80ED). Surprisingly, many of the photos turned out pretty well. I finally got a chance to sort through most of the photos and crop them. I posted some of them below.

One of the fields at the end of the paddies was completely flooded. There was a small stand of trees and shrubs lining the “pond” which served as a rookery for a number of herons and egrets.

Black-crowned Night Herons

Black-crowned Night Herons were fairly abundant. The best time to see them is just before dusk. On a previous trip, I counted 177 individuals at the Old Railroad Bridge Park in Fongshan.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret were also abundant. Most were observed in the drained fields adjacent to the paddies. On one occasion, a farmer was plowing a drained field in preparation for sowing. I watched a small flock of about 15-20 Cattle Egret following the tractor, snatching up various grubs and small rodents unearthed by the plow.

Little Egret

Another abundant wader! At first glance, these guys look like our Snowy Egrets, except that the Little Egret has darker lores and longer head plumes.

Intermediate Egret

Intermediate Egrets are mainly overwintering birds, although some resident birds have been observed (rarely). I did not see these birds when I first got to Taiwan in June. They started to show up early in August, around the same time as the early migrating shorebirds.

Rice is planted three times a year in Taiwan. When I first arrived in Taiwan, there were in the midst of harvesting the most recent crop. For a few weeks following harvest, the paddies were more like mudflats or shallow pools following a rain storm. This was a prime habitat for a variety of rails and waders.

Greater Painted Snipe - pair

The Greater Painted Snipe inhabit heavily vegetated wet fields and grassy marshes. Despite their name, they are not true snipe. Actually, they are more closely related to jacanas. Like jacanas (and phalarope), Painted-Snipe are polyandrous and exhibit sex role reversal. Females fight each other for territory and court males. The nest is built by the male, generally on marshy ground. After laying a clutch, the female leaves the male to incubate the eggs and rear the young. She seeks another mate.

Greater Painted Snipe (female)

Little Ringed Plover

Taiwan's smallest plover. The Little Ringed Plover is primarily an overwintering bird, but resident populations are present in the southern part of the island. The plover has a fairly interesting feeding habit. As they walk along a mudflat, they occasionally tap their feet on the ground, presumably to create a disturbance and stir their prey.

Common Moorhen

Local Taiwanese refer to moorhens as tsui gi (水鸡) - meaning "water chicken". I can not vouch for the taste. The moorhen are a common year-round resident, and are by far the most abundant rail on the island.

Ruddy-breasted Crake

Ruddy-breasted Crake are widely distributed on Taiwan; however, they can be difficult to see. They are very vigilant and wary. I was able to observe on only after playing a recording of its call and drawing it out onto the edge of a reed field. The moorhens in the area were very aggressive, driving the crake back into the reeds.

Wood Sandpiper

Common passage migrants in Taiwan. At first glance, they appear similar to our Yellow-legs. The Wood Sandpipers frequently bob their tails while feeding, in a manner reminiscent of a Common Sandpiper.

There were also a variety of swallows and martins flying around above the rice paddies. Some of the fields adjacent to the paddies were overgrown, attracting grassland birds.

Pacific Swallow

The Pacific Swallow is broadly distributed throughout Taiwan. It is similar to our Barn Swallow (which is also present in Taiwan), except that he Pac Swallows lacks both a long forked tail and the black band on the lower throat.

Plain Martin

Plain Martins are common residents of the lowland plains, particularly near water. They nest primarily on riverbanks and eroded edges of fish pond.

Zitting Cisticola

Cisticola were broadly distributed among lowland grassy plains, rice paddies and grassy scrubland. They are incessantly active. They have an interesting flight display where they fly around a territory in a high undulating flight path, chattering and singing as they go. Suddenly, they make a dive into the scrub. It was quite a spectacle.

Overall, I observed 32 species in and around the rice paddies. Unfortunately, there were some birds I was unable to photograph. Most notable were the Common Kingfisher and the Cinnamon Bittern. The Kingfishers were just too fast. My first sighting was somewhat serendipitous. I was walking the paddies in the late afternoon, during intermittent rain. Suddenly, two iridescent blue streaks shot down the grey water canal between the paddies. I jumped up on the retaining wall to see what just flew by. Couldn't see anything. A few minutes later, the birds flew back up the opposite way. One stopped and perched on the retaining wall on the other side of the canal. It only stayed for a few moments before flying off. The Cinnamon Bitterns were observed several times. Each time I saw one, it was a bird that flushed, flew about 50 yards or so, and then settled down inconspicuously in tall reeds.