Sunday, January 26, 2020

Winter Waterfowl Count

     Last weekend, I participated in the New York State Ornithological Association's Winter Waterfowl Count. This survey has been conducted each year since 1955 (mostly) and it is done state-wide on any salt or fresh waterfronts.  The count takes place every January and I helped out on the Coney Island/Brighton Beach waterfront with two wonderful bird friends.
     We mainly looked for ducks, geese, grebes, loons, and such, but also kept our eyes peeled for other birds as well. We also made a special trip to Sheepshead Bay to get some nice close looks at a razorbill who has been hanging out.
It was really nice to see a few close and floating on the surface northern gannets.

Oddly, I felt like there was not too much out in terms of waterfowl. Much of what we counted was through the scope.
On Coney Island pier we got some closer looks at red breasted mergansers.

There were a few other females, plus one male off of the pier.

We all were hoping to run into this bird, affectionately called "Stubby."
It is a lesser black-backed gull who lacks both of its feet!

This bird is alive and has been for some time, so it's feeding and doing what it needs to survive. I can't imagine its a strong swimmer, but who knows some of these animals, even while missing limbs can still do more than we think.

Most birds were backlit, so I was really stoked to have picked out an Iceland Gull among ring-billed and others.

A few ruddy turnstones also turned up on the rock groins.

We had really nice close looks at a black scoter and surf scoter duo up at one of the rock groins outside the aquarium.
Oddly enough I set up a scope at work today and scoped some birds with my youth volunteers and I saw, at about the same rock groin a surf and black scoter. Was it the same two birds, who knows, but I'd like to think they are pals and this is their favorite hang out spot to feed.

Pretty cool to see them get right in there and get some mussels without having to dive.
Surf scoter have an interesting face, it looks like they smile when they open their mouth.

At Sheepshead Bay, we just followed the bird paparazzi and found the razorbill.

Saw a lot of this... also had a lot of photos of this.
When they dive they open up their wings, and like penguins flap underwater to swim.

Razorbills are in the Auk family. They are the closest relatives of the extinct (100% due to humans) great auk. The great auk genus, Pinguinus, they are the original penguins. Penguins were discovered later and given their name, but they are not closely related to auks or razorbills at all.

These birds can be found off our shores, and it is a welcome sign to see more and more. Sheepshead Bay in the last few years has turned up some good birds and I whole heartedly believe it is a testament to the improvements on our water quality. It's a crying shame that the Trump administration is rolling back some protections from the clean water act (a friendly reminder to vote if you give a hoot about our waterways).
The black and white coloration, like on penguins is called countershading, it is a wonderful form of camouflage. You blend in from above with the depths below. And prey below you never see you coming as a white belly is bright against the day time sky above the water's surface. 
We did get to see this bird come up with a fish as well, which the gulls were very keen on. The gulls then pursued it for a while and it dove and ducked out of their way and hopefully got to eat its fish.

How cute is this little birb?!

Also enjoyed this nice close view of a common loon. Sheepshead Bay offers nice close looks, so much comes close to the pedestrian walkways. A bridge also spans the bay, giving you an additional chance to get extra close without disturbing the birds.

And holy cow!
Look what it brought up!

Down the hatch.
That looks comfortable right?
Hand me a mallet and nutcracker for mine, please!


Friday, January 24, 2020

Texas: South Padre Island

     And here we are, as we approach the end of our Texas journey. This place is huge and we really explored such a tiny slice of it. The state has regions of unique flora and fauna due to its immense size and I'm glad we got a really vivid and colorful piece of it.
     The best and cheapest flight we could get was to go in and out of Brownsville, so we needed to head back south.
     In our drive down from Corpus Cristi we drove through and made a short stop at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is the largest piece of protected land in the Rio Grande Valley. We got there a little later in the day, so the heat had already set in and much was quiet. Around the visitors center feeders are set up and there are water sources for the birds, so we saw the most birds in and around those small trails. The refuge offers bus tours for free that fill up fast and go into areas not accessible by car. We did not get on one of those because they were all filled up. There are a ton of bike trails that would likely be wonderful to travel because again, they seemed to have more access to areas than cars. So we took to some short walks because I think we were both ready for some beach time that awaited us at our final destination.
And you should abide, because not far behind these signs, we spotted a massive American Alligator.

One trail led us to a small boardwalk overlooking the remains of a pond, now dried up to a wallow with a gator mom and a few of her babies.
This one, on her back freaking choked me up. LOOK AT HOW CUTE THIS IS!!!!

And then they both close their eyes together. SERIOUSLY, STOP IT.

There was also a third baby gator, but it dipped below the surface.

I hope they do well, I love that little baby so much!

But in all seriousness, seeing this puddle with a gator in it was a great example of how these animals play a key role in their homes, a keystone role, in fact. Gators will create wallows and in drier times, they can help collect water in their wallow. Other animals benefit, as all their water doesn't just dry up and disappear. And obviously, the gator benefits too, because all those little critters come visit for a drink.

The other really cool thing about this refuge is that it is home to some ocelots. But of course they are secretive and prefer not to come out by day. The ranger told me they have 60 or so of them on the refuge. They used to range into some of our other southern states but now are only restricted to the very South of Texas.
We saw none, obviously, as you only get one of their cool road signs instead.
On South Padre Island we treated ourselves, this is our last hurrah before we have a kid in our lives, is it not? We stayed at a resort it was called Pearl, got a couples massage, and got to soak in the pool with beverages (sans rum for me...), it was a lovely way to close up our travels.
But the front pond of our hotel had birds in it, like this lesser scaup.

I was also drawn to it because the pond always had redheads on it. So when my husband went for his beach run,  checked out the birds on the pond out front and the beach behind our hotel.

The pond had mottled ducks on it and this one reveals the very easy way to tell mottled ducks from mallards - that blue patch on the wing is bordered by black. On a mallard it would be white. We saw zero mallards while here.

On the beach side of our hotel, flocks of brown pelicans, flying in perfect formation were a constant sight.

Texas also has lots of wintering Laughing Gulls. Many with the pattern baldness look to them, this one was nearly in full hood.

Sanderlings ran in and out with the waves and were very forgiving of the foot and dog traffic on the beach.

Such cuties!

And willets were also running along the shoreline probing the sand for a mollusk treat.
South Padre Island also had its own World Birding Center that is ultra family friendly and accessible (it's all boardwalk). It is on almost all wetland on the opposite side of the island from the Gulf of Mexico.
So it was a wader/gull/duck kinda morning.
This great blue heron greeted us to the boardwalks.

Tons of very human-oriented black-bellied whistling ducks, as the center sells seeds to feed to the birds - so everything begs.
The center also features alligators. They have a rescue for troublesome gators that they hold onto, and grow up then later release. So essentially they have the trouble-making teenage gators that you also can at times feed.
We opted just to look at stuff.

I have never seen so many Northern Pintails in my life the way we did here!

My husband called the whistling ducks the ducks with mohawks.

White ibis scouring the plants and mud they grow from for snacks.

I'm not sure what this green heron was doing, but it was very kind to allow me to observe it while screaming children ran by.
They didn't seem to be bothered by it -- likely because usually those are the ones feeding them.

It ws real nice to have some long, lingering looks at a green heron. Even though we have them in NY, you have to appreciate those moments.

An adorable mottled duck, eyeing us for snacks.

A bunch of Caspian terns out on the mudflats, well beyond the boardwalks. Had a few flyover too. Happy to see them!

Coots have weird feet but gallinules have oversized feet.

Gallinules and coots both have cute faces.

Like I said, coots have weird feet.

*I can haz snackz?????*

Got some lovely looks at tricolored herons here.

As well as some odd looks.

And some glamorous looks.

Some, I match the colors of the water looks too!

This bird was very busy hunting!

Toward the end of the boardwalks, there was a small group of roseate spoonbills resting. This was the only one without its face shoved into its back and resting.

They funny.

Their pink color, like flamingoes comes from the food they eat, primarily shrimp that hide in the mud and muck but can be stirred up  and procured with that bill.

A few black stilts also rested with the spoonbills.

There is another trail, next door at the convention center. It is free but we saw far less birds on it for whatever reason. But it did have parking lot ibises!

It also had anoles and we spotted some black skimmers that eventually flew overhead.
We spent the afternoon in the pool, because it was pretty toasty outside.
Texas was great, I hope someday I can go back, hopefully with a kid who also loves birds and wildlife and wants to see it all and grow their life list.
If you are thinking about a Texas birding trip, especially to the RGV area, I cannot recommend enough the World Birding Centers, and the National Wildlife Refuges down there. I also utilized ebird to target specific species and hotspots.
We were hoping to keep our travels low cost, we used Airbnb's that had access to laundry to bring only carryon bags and do some laundry in the evening. We also cooked breakfast each morning, packed most of our lunches, and one night felt like we ate way too much, made light dinners at the place. It does involve devoting time to a grocery store, but I gotta say the HEB groceries themselves are an experience (and I got my first TX cattle egret in a HEB parking lot). I'm happy to say that our flights, lodging, and car rental were the biggest expenses. Everything else was very affordable. Most of the birding centers and wildlife refuges offer free walks, usually early; their fees to get in are small, but worth supporting those places.
So, if you're itching to get out to Texas for some birding, I cannot recommend the RGV enough. t's easy walking and no altitude (being preggers this was a big factor), the birds are plentiful, and in the winter, it is mild and bearable. Hope you enjoyed our adventures, hope you get to make your own!