I'm A Winner!

Last spring, the sport optics division of Pentax was running a contest/drawing for all of their binocular dealers and customers purchasing certain models of their products. The grand prize for this Sail Away promotion was a trip for two to Costa Rica and Panama. I was randomly selected among all the nationwide entrants as the grand prize winner of this contest and will be flying to Costa Rica with my wife tomorrow afternoon! We are excited, to say the least.
If you are curious, here is a description of our cruise.

Though there won't be much going on here at 600 birds for the time being, I'll be sure to have lots of stories photos to share when I return mid-November.
Quetzel image courtesey of Jeff Bouton
Hopefully we'll be able to see a few of these on the trip.


Saw-whet Owl Banding

I had a great experience Saturday night participating in the Saw-Whet Owl banding operation at the Linwood Springs Research Station in Stevens Point, WI. Right now the Saw-Whet Owl migration is peaking here in Wisconsin as the owls (mostly females and juveniles) head south for the winter. See the Saw-Whet Owl's range here.

Gene Jacobs runs this research station, which conducts studies on Sharp-shinned and Red-shouldered Hawks, in addition to Saw-whet Owls. Gene and his interns band 500-700 owls annually. Here Gene is explaining the molting patterns of the Saw-whet owl.

When the owls get processed, the wing feathers get marked with a non-toxic, blue marker. Gene is assisting in a study on the Saw-whet's molt pattern. By marking the wings, Gene and other banders can determine the molt strategy and sequence on individual birds over time.

This is the ear of a Saw-whet owl. Like the larger Great Gray Owl, Saw-whets have ears that are asymmetrical, allowing them to triangulate the position of prey via sound. A very convenient product of evolution for birds that hunt in the dark.
Here I am with "Hootie", an owl that my wife and I adopted for our daughters. For a small donation, the adoption gives us a certificate with Hootie's band number, age, weight, etc.. We will also get updates on any re-captures of Hootie, should she find her way into another mist-net during her migratory life. Our kids were excited to have their own owl, even though we weren't able to bring Hootie home.

This year, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF) hosted 3 Saw-whet Owl banding trips to the Linwood Research Station. The NRF is a wonderful organization devoted to conservation efforts here in Wisconsin. Their field trip program offers participants the opportunity to get a world class education about Wisconsin's wildlife and ecology directly from experts in the field. I would highly encourage anyone with an interest in the outdoors to check this program out.


California Thrasher

It hasn't quite been a week yet since I've been back from my cruise to Central America and I still haven't found the time to edit my 700+ photos from the trip. I'm working on it though! I probably won't have time to get a trip-related post up here until I get back from the Fesitval of the Cranes at the Bosque del Apache NWR in Socorro, New Mexico. I'm flying out Wed to return on Monday the 23rd. There are certainly some birds I am looking forward to finding on this next trip, namely the Rosey-Finches (Grey-Crowned, Brown-Capped, and Black).

Below is an image of one of my latest life-birds that I digiscoped while at the Monterey Bay Birding Festival this past September. This is the only Thrasher species that resides along California's coast, though it has many of the same characteristics as the other commonly occurring species of this genus, both in terms of looks and behavior. Not the most dramatic new bird of 2008, but I was able to get a pretty decent shot of it.
More to come soon, from New Mexico and the tropics!

More photos from Jekyll Island, GA

Below are some more photos from my recent trip to Georgia for the Colonial Coast Birding and Nature Festival. These are a few of the avian residents on the North side of the Island.

Laughing Gull with shrimp.

Northern Mockingbird.

Sanderlings, seen everywhere scurrying about the beach like wind-up toys.

Wood Storks.


King Rail!

I'm blogging from the Colonial Coast Birding and Nature Festival on Jekyll Island, GA right now. The island is one of Georgia's many birding hot spots and a favorite destination of mine. This time of year the monsoons come in and make for some magnificent storm fronts. The photo above was taken last night right outside the exhibitor hall as one of these fronts was moving in. In years past, these storms have brought migrating birds into the beach area while I've waited out the weather. I've seen the beaches on this island loaded down with Peregrine Falcons on every perch and piece of driftwood available. Once I was even lucky enough to catch a Long-tailed Jaeger fly in and land on the sand less than 15 meters from me.

I didn't hit the beach this morning, however. I was on a mission for one of the few new birds in this area that could get me closer to that 600th species. My colleagues Jeff Bouton, Cameron Cox, and I drove inland to search for a King Rail. We hit the jackpot at the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area.

Like most rails, King Rails are extremely elusive and more often heard and not seen. While traversing a raised dyke road along these wetlands we first heard this bird's distinct call. Jeff, being the talented birder that he is, responded back with the perfect imitation. We played this game with the rail, calling back and forth, as we walked along the trail to an open area where we were hoping the bird would reveal itself. Fortunately for us, this bird was cooperative. The bird pictured above is the smaller female, which we set eyes on first. Shortly after she made her presence known, another rail showed up. This second bird was a larger male, presumably coming in to see who was checking out his mate.

Here is a short video of the King Rail, which Jeff digiscoped through his Leica spotting scope. Another new bird that we spotted on this journey was a Purple Gallinule, bringing my new total of North American species sightings up to 572!


Pelagic Birding

This year on my birthday, I had the chance to go on my first ever pelagic birding trip in Monterey Bay. I went out with Debi Shearwater on a prefestival excursion while I was in California for the Monterey Bay Birding Festival.

Pelagic birding is fun, though it has it's challenges. Identifying birds (mostly in flight) from a moving vessel on the ocean is tough. I find the the lower the magnification of your optics, the easier it is to try and keep the birds in your field of view.

You and all year gear will get wet. Dress for the weather and be sure your binoculars are waterproof. I know that when I got back to my hotel, I had to give my 7x42's a good bath to wash off the salt water residue.

Pelagic birds aren't species most of us typically encounter, so all of those identifiable fieldmarks, calls, and behavior patterns that I have managed to cram into my brain as I have evolved as a birder were of little use. That didn't stop me from making the best of this experience though. Debi does a great job of surrounding trip attendees with the experts ready to point out birds and answer any ID questions one might have. It was a memorable experience and added 12 new birds to my life list!

In addition to birds, we had fantastic marine mammal sightings, including multiple Humpback Whales and Dalls Porpoise.

For a trip species list, check out Debi's blog here.
If you are interested in seeing some of the birds we sighted, Steve Howell posted photos from the trip here.