Birding Toscano II, Riserva Naturale Diaccia Botrona

Castiglione della Pescaia

Castiglione della Pescaia

Attention non-birders; this was a guided trip to the beautiful west coast of Italy, combining fine dining and exploration of ancient Etruscan and Roman ruins with wonderful birding in the Riserva. My five travel companions were non-birders, but people who liked new adventure, travel, hiking, and history, not to mention the dining.  My job was finding a guide for the day who could serve this diverse crowd and create an appropriate agenda for all.  Marco Valtriani was the perfect choice.  He is a biologist by trade, but also a gifted birder, naturalist, and well-versed in local history and culture.  He knows the off-the-beaten-track sites and loves to share his knowledge with travelers.  Visit his sites at www.Birdinginitaly.com and www.walkinginetruria.com. We met Marco in Siena and car pooled to the coast. Pulling into the picturesque coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia we saw beautiful, large yachts moored along the quay, and immediately assumed one would be ours for the sea-leg of our tour.  But when we turned into a dirt road along the swamp and stopped next to the 22 foot outboard open skiff, I could see the crest-fallen looks on some faces.  Their vision of wine and cheese on a Mediterranean cruise while Steve watches birds fly by, was shattered.  They were all good sports however, as we loaded into the skiff and started down the canal, into the vast brackish, wetland making up the Riserva Naturale Diaccia Botrona.

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Our leader and crew, click on photos to zoom

IMG_2446 It was a “bluebird day” with panoramic views of the marsh and continuous flyovers of wading birds, ducks, and gulls, called out by the guide.  Several stops on dry land gave great scope-views of the waders, including Greater Flamingo.  This is one of the few places this bird is seen in Italy.  I saw 27 species including 12 life-birds:  Common Shelduck, White-cheeked Pintail, Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Common Wood-Pigeon, Common Kingfisher, and Eurasian Jackdaw. IMG_2421

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

We had settled in to the pleasant routine of cruising the canals while Marco pointed out bird after bird.  When a birder hires a guide you must not fall into the trap of just making your list, and not truly observing the birds.  I think we accomplished that, and could tell from the smiles on the non-birders that we had achieved some enjoyment for them too. Suddenly Marco and the boat captain started waving, pointing, and yelling in Italian as two ducks landed just in front of us.  The boat veered to the side of the canal and the motor abruptly stopped.  We weren’t sure what had happened and why the excitement, until Marco reported that the birds were likely a rarity, not usually seen in the marsh.  He wasn’t sure what they were.  Most of these birds were new for us, but it was interesting to see the excited reaction of the Italian birders, universally experienced by all birders, when an unexpected rarity turns up.  Marco texted a couple good pictures of the birds to the local birding guru and finally established the birds as male and female White-cheeked Pintails.

White-cheeked Pintail

White-cheeked Pintail

male & female White-cheeked Pintail

White-cheeked Pintail and Fulvous Whistling Duck

With that settled it was time to eat, and what a lunch it was.  I  can still taste the wine, bread, and pasta served at the sidewalk cafe of the Ristorante Pierbacco in Castiglione della Pescaia.  These people know how to dine–no hurry, just good food and conversation, and planning for the afternoon trek to the ancient ruins a few miles inland.

View from Russellae ruins toward Lacus Prelius

View from Russellae ruins toward Lacus Prelius

The Etruscan civilization developed in central and western Italy in the 9th century BC and lasted to the 4th century BC when it was assimilated by the Romans.  It was contemporary to ancient Greece, but surprisingly little is known about these people.  They had a unique language; “Etrusci” is the root for “Tuscany”.  The Etruscans tended to build their towns and cities at the top of hills and mountains, as was the case with our destination Rusellae, which is situated on the twin peaks, 636 feet above the coastal plain.  The hill over looks the ancient Lake Prile, now a dry, fertile farmland.

Rusellae Ruins

Rusellae Ruins

After short climb up the ancient Roman via we arrived at the ruins.  These are primarily Roman, built directly on top of the Etruscan ruins which have been recently discovered and excavated.  Its amazing to realize that at the height of the Roman Empire, the Etruscans were already an ancient civilization.  The Roman ruins include a large amphitheater, villas, and baths, some with surviving mosaic floors.  The town was sacked by the Muslims in 935 AD and completely deserted and left to the weather and undergrowth by 1138. The ruins were discovered an excavation begun in the 1950’s. The site was surprisingly quiet that day with only a few other visitors seen all afternoon–a great chance to contemplate one’s position in the great march of time, and catch a few more bird photos when no one was looking.

Roman via

Roman via

Etruscan ruins, under the Roman ruins

Etruscan ruins, under the Roman ruins

Roman mosaic floor

Roman mosaic floor

Roman amphitheater

Roman amphitheater

But as Virgil said, “all our sweetest hours fly fastest”.  That was the case that evening as we thanked Marco and bid him good-bye in Siena, a little tired and dusty, but so much richer for our experience–and don’t forget those Italian birds.

Pelagic Birding on Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay, California

Monterey Bay, California

Up and down! Up and down!

From the base of the wave to the billow’s crown;

And amidst the flashing and feathery foam

The Stormy Petrel finds a home,–

A home, if such a place may be,

For her who lives on the wide, wide sea,

On the craggy ice, in the frozen air,

And only seeketh her rocky lair

To warm her young and to teach them spring

At once o’er the waves on their stormy wing!

Barry Cornwall–The Stormy Petrel

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I have been smitten by the sea and things of the sea.  Sailing ships, war ships, and tales of the sea have been a life-long fascination.  The childhood confines of the freshwater lakes and limiting shores were adequate to learn the basics of sail, but I sought the greater possibilities of the salty seas.  The tides bring the possibility of distant, unencumbered travel, and even if never realized, the dream exists.  Add to this the lure of the sea birds.  Oh, there are the interesting shorebirds, hugging the coasts and capable of remarkable travel, and the ubiquitous gulls, but its the seabirds that inspire and intrigue most.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

Sea birds spend most of their time in or over the oceans, far away from the sight of birders, only seeking land for nesting on small uninhabited islands or arctic shores. They have plumage shades of brown, black, and white and most are magnificent fliers, reveling in the wind and waves. The large-bodied Albatross with long, narrow wings actually requires significant wind for flight.  In a few locations ocean currents bring prey close to shore and the birds can be seen with a scope from land, but if you want a good view you must go to sea.

The Albatrosses, Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, and Petrels are collectively known as “tube noses”, all having a tubular sheath (naricorn) on the upper bill encasing the nasal openings.  Jaegers and Skuas are predatory gull-like birds that chase other sea birds, forcing them to drop their catch.  Murres and Auklets are smaller, plump seabirds with bulky beaks and are related to the Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin of the east coast.

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross

Every birder at some point confronts the challenges of a pelagic adventure–its almost a right of passage, but not undertaken lightly.  There is the issue of transportation to a coast, and reserving a spot on a boat, neither inexpensive. Its usually cold and may be foggy or windy,  but the greatest issue is sea-sickness.  It tough to enjoy and photograph the birds when you’re green and hanging off the back-rail.  If one chooses to endure all this you prepare by having warm, water-proof clothes, water-proof binoculars of relatively low power to minimize the affects of the rolling boat, and some sort of protection of your camera and lens from the salt spray.

Common Murre

Common Murre

A couple years ago we planned our first trip to San Francisco and I was sly enough to convince my wife that we needed to also spend a few days in Monterey.  And oh, by the way, it just so happens that Monterey Bay is the mecca for pelagic birders and we’ll have just enough time to schedule such a cruise.  She good naturedly agreed to come along for the ride, but my only concern was her tendency for sea-sickness.  I’ve never been afflicted, and always secretly harbored the suspicion that this condition was primarily psychological, looking at the pitiful souls affected with an air of superiority–just buck up.

Debi Shearwater (previously Millichap) is a pioneer of pelagic birding, and started her Monterey company, Shearwater Journeys in 1976.  It was her boat that hosted the three competing birders whose adventures were chronicled in the film, “The Big Year”, as well as 70,000 other birders. It was my first choice.  www.shearwaterjourneys.com

Pomarine Jaeger, the largest jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger, the largest jaeger

We followed every sea sickness recommendation, ate breakfast at the prescribed time, took the pills, and showed up at the dock early for the cruise.  It was somewhat overcast, foggy, and cool as we boarded “Check Mate” and Debi gave us dozen or so voyagers the introductory speech.  The captain and her crew were great teachers and spotters, calling out the birds, as we left the harbor and made our way out into the rougher waters of Monterey Bay.  You could tell whether a bird was routine or unusual by their level of excitement, but to us they were all new and interesting.

Captain Shearwater, pre-cruise lecture

Captain Shearwater, pre-cruise lecture

Yours truly, armed and ready

Yours truly, armed and ready

It snuck up on me slowly.  At first you barely notice and try to deny it–you attempt to head it off by looking at the horizon.  Then the nausea builds; you break out in a cold sweat and literally turn green as you run to the back rail to publicly add your contribution to the sea level of Monterey Bay.  The chumming from the stern does not help your recovery.  The worst part was that I was the only one affected.  My wife sympathized but had no problem at all, none at all; how humiliating.  I no longer believe it is psychological.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater

Buller’s Shearwater

Despite my state I was able to see and photograph most of the sea birds that crossed our wake.  It was a good day.  I saw twenty life birds including sea birds:  Laysan and Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Buller’s, and Sooty Shearwater, Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed Jaeger, Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklet, Common Murre, and South Polar Skua.

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

One thing about sea sickness–you recover quickly when the boat enters the flat water inside the breakwater and you reach solid ground.  We ended the day with a great dinner at a dockside restaurant, watching our boat quietly moored, no longer rolling with the waves.  I’m not sure if I have another pelagic cruise in my future, but at least for one day I witnessed the flight and beauty of these amazing birds.

Check Mate, at dockside

“Check Mate”, at dockside

Poetry Is For The Birds

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When I announced that I was going to create a post about birds and poetry I got skeptical and disbelieving looks from family and friends.  “Now you’ve gone too far”, and “what do you know about poetry?” were the unspoken but sensed reactions.  And they may be right, but the beauty of blogging is like leaping off the cliff and hoping you learn to fly before you hit bottom.  If it speaks to you, share it with the world.

Why have birds inspired poets throughout history?  I believe it is in part due to flight.  Man envies the birds.  Their flight signifies freedom, independence, adventure, and travel; they’re not confined to the artificial boundaries and borders of man, but migrate across the oceans.  It is also due to their unique feathered beauty and coloration.  Some are small and vulnerable whereas others display strength, and even evoke fear.  Their song clearly has its appeal as discussed in an earlier post.

I have gathered together a short anthology of nine bird poems that have appealed to me.  My criteria for selecting them was merely my preference and their length–I like the short ones best.  I’ll admit I have a bias to the poetry of John Clare, the 19th century English poet and will start with one of his.  A friend of mine, Eric Robinson, has spent much of his life compiling and editing the manuscripts of Clare and introduced me to his work.  Clare is known as the “peasant poet” and celebrated the agrarian life and natural world, including birds in his poetry.

Hedge Sparrow, by John Clare

The tame hedge-sparrow in its russet dress

Is half a robin for its gentle ways

And the bird-loving dame can do no less

Then throw it out a crumble on cold days

In early March it into gardens strays

And in the snug clipt box-tree green and round

It makes a nest of moss and hair and lays

When e’en the snow is lurking on the ground

Its eggs in number five of greenish blue

Bright beautiful and glossy shining shells

Much like the firetail’s but of brighter hue

Yet in her garden-home much danger dwells

Where skulking cat with mischief in its breast

Catches their young before they leave the nest

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

For a change of pace, sample from the work of e. e. cummings.  I remember him as the 20th century poet that never found the shift key on his typewriter, but could succinctly capture the essence of birds in a few lines.  Here are selections about a Kingbird and Chickadee:

for any ruffian of the sky, by e. e. cummings

for any ruffian of the sky

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn–

his royal warcry is I AM

and he’s the soul of chivalry.

In terror of whose furious beak

(as sweetly singing creatures know)

cringes the hugest heartless hawk

and veers the vast most crafty crow.

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn

for murderers of high estate

whose mongrel creed is Might Makes Right

–his royal warcry is I AM.

true to his mate his chicks his friends

he loves because he cannot fear

(you see it in the way he stands

and looks and leaps upon the air)

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

spirit colossal, by e. e. cummings

spirit colossal

(&daunted by always

nothing) you darling

diminutive person.

jovial ego (&

mischievous tenderly

phoebeing alter)

clown of an angel.

everywhere welcome

(but chiefly at home in

snowily nowheres

of winter his silence).

give me a trillionth

part of inquisitive

merrily humble

your livingest courage.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

The clever humor of Ogden Nash does not spare the birds.  This is one of my favorites.

The Grackle, by Ogden Nash

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow

His heart is black, his eye is yellow.

He bullies more attractive birds

With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words.

And should a human interfere,

Attacks the human in the rear.

I cannot help but deem the grackle

An ornithological debacle.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the 19th century Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, noted for his “Charge of the Light Brigade”.  His short poem about the eagle paints a vivid picture in few words:

The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Emily Dickinson, the 19th century New Englander takes the ubiquitous Migratorius turdus, and celebrates its certainty and overlooked beauty.

The Robin is the One, by Emily Dickinson

The Robin is the One

That interrupt the Morn

With hurried–few–express Reports

When March is scarcely on.

The Robin is the One

That overflow the Noon

With her cherubic quantity

An April but begun.

The Robin is the One

That speechless from her Nest

Submit the Home–and Certainty

And Sanctity, are best.

American Robin

American Robin

Can I return to Clare?

In Summer Showers a Skreeking Noise is Heard, by John Clare

In summer showers a skreeking noise is heard

Deep in the woods of some uncommon bird

It makes a loud and long and loud continued noise

And often stops the speed of men and boys

They think somebody mocks and goes along

And never thinks the nuthatch makes the song

Who always comes along the summer guest

The birdnest hunters never found the nest

The schoolboy hears the noise from day to day

And stoops among the thorns to find a way

And starts the jay bird from the bushes green

He looks and sees a nest he’s never seen

And takes the spotted eggs with many joys

And thinks he found the bird that made the noise

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

In the poem by Frost you can just picture the wide-eyed children’s close encounter with the owl.

Questioning Faces, by Robert Frost

The winter owl banked just in time to pass

And save herself from breaking window glass.

And her wings straining suddenly aspread

Caught color from the last of evening red

In a display of underdown and quill

To glassed-in children at the window sill.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

I bird frequently in Pelican Bay near Naples, Florida and see and photograph many Brown Pelicans in various plumages.  I heard this poem for the first time from a literary birding friend and often repeat it on the beach as the Pelicans fly by and dive for fish.  It is a wonderful bird as Merritt famously documents below.

The Pelican, by Dixon Lanier Merritt

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Birding By Ear

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Common Yellowthroat

We’ve probably all had this experience.  Before you can get your binoculars out of their case, an expert birder in your group has already identified by sound alone, a dozen birds around the parking lot.  During the walk they add many more, some perching unseen in the canopy and others flying over, too quickly to get your glass on them.  This almost unfair advantage that some birders possess is one of the distinguishing traits of an “expert” birder.  How do they learn this and can I also acquire this skill?  Before I try to answer this let me review some basics of birdsong.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

How do birds sing?  Birds have a trachea, similar to humans, that divides in the chest into a right and left mainstem bronchus.  Whereas humans have their single vocalizing organ or larynx at the upper end of the trachea, a bird has its instrument or syrinx in the proximal part of each bronchus near the bifurcation, giving it the advantage of two independent vocalizing organs. A thin membrane or tympanum is adjusted by small muscles to control pitch.  The amazingly complex repertoire of some birds is explained by this intricate dual syrinx, operable during both inspiration and expiration.  But bird sounds vary greatly.  Why do some seem to produce only a guttural squawk (Great Blue Heron), while others can entertain you with countless themes and variations (Northern Mockingbird)?

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Which birds sing?   In the classification of birds the order Passeriformes is made up of small, perching birds, all with three toes projecting forward and one backwards.  This order is divided into two suborders, Passeri (oscine) and Tyranni (suboscine).  The large oscine suborder is made up of 4561 species and contains the best singers.  The suboscines have a simpler and more primitive syrinx, limiting their vocal skills.  The tyrant flycatchers are the most notable example of suboscines who all struggle to carry a tune.  There is evidence that the suboscines inherit their limited song repertoire, whereas the oscines must learn to sing their more complex repertoire.  Male birds do most of the singing, however some females join in the choir.  The female Red-winged Blackbird, for instance has one song to respond to her mate, and another to scare off other females from sneaking in the backdoor.

Great-crested Flycatcher

Great-crested Flycatcher

Why do birds sing?  The common answer to this is to defend territory and attract a mate.  Birdsong has the advantage of being a multidirectional communication tool with no dead zone. The “keep out” call of the breeding season becomes less frequently heard in the winter, while the female becomes a the talent scout in spring, preferring to mate with the most sonorous male.  But there is a downside to being loud and conspicuous.  Some birds have evolved and survived by developing camouflage coloration and by being secretive and quiet.  Others have taken the opposite evolutionary path and become visually and audibly apparent and aggressive.  This may give them an advantage in attracting mates and defending their territories, but also may attract predators.  Birdsong has risks and rewards.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Birds also have other reasons to sing.  They use brief contact calls to stay in touch with family or mates, or to alert others to a threat or new food source.  The Florida Scrub Jay has one call that indicates a ground intruder and a different call for an aerial threat.  Flight calls are used to keep a migrating flock in formation.  I suspect the periodic nocturnal honk of the Canada Geese I hear all night long from our cove in the Chesapeake Bay is the “all is well” call of the flock’s sentry.  We’ve also all heard the juvenile’s call from the nest, begging to “feed me first” as the parent flies in with the next meal.  I also believe that some birds just sing for pure enjoyment.  You would probably agree if you have ever heard the impressive theme and variations of the Northern Mockingbird extending well into the night.  Mimus polyglottos, the scientific name of this bird is very appropriate.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

What do birds sing?  It’s interesting and puzzling to note that some birds have only one or two songs, (Indigo Bunting, Ovenbird), while others have dozens (European Robin, 70) and others have thousands (Brown Thrasher, 2000+).  Despite the occasional curveball thrown our way by the mimics such as the Parrots and Mockingbirds, most species have repeated and consistent songs that allow field identification.  One notes the almost monotonic but rhythmic call of the White-throated Sparrow versus the rising and complex song of the Warbling Vireo, each a unique identifier in the field.  The flycatchers of the Empidonax genus present a difficult visual identification challenge.  Noting their range and habits helps some, but the definitive ID is made from their unique songs.  The woodpeckers have added a percussion section to their rather limited vocal ensemble.  Their drumming is not just the sound of them hunting for food in the tree trunks, but also a unique signature of pitch, rhythm, and strength, protecting a territory and giving us another tool for identification.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Techniques for learning birdsong:  So how can we join the elite and bird by ear?  First you already know more bird songs than you think.  Add them up:  Robin, Chickadee, Cardinal, Blue Jay, Canada Goose, American Crow, etc.  I’ll bet a new birder knows at least a dozen, and a more experienced birder has learned several dozen without even trying. There are several tools available that I have used with varying results.  The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America has CD’s of 150 birds which I have played while commuting to and from work.  You may get a second look from the next car at a stoplight with the bird sounds coming from the truck, but so what–we all know that birders are different.  I also have used two apps (IKnowBirdSongs and Master Birder, and there are others) which combine the songs with a picture of the bird, and cleverly use a repetitive tool and quiz to gradually build your skills.  Many guides have bird spectrograms, a graphic but somewhat confusing representation of each bird song.  One can also learn mnemonics (“Who cooks for you” for the Barred Owl, etc.) and these also can be helpful for a some species.  But for me these methods have all been entertaining, but only marginally successful. I believe the best learning is done in the field.  Perhaps the most useful aid is birding with others who know the songs and point out the source birds.  But even when you bird alone, make it a habit to observe the bird and listen for its call.  So often I have made the ID from field marks and moved on, but if you take the extra time to listen to each bird you will soon add to your growing song list.

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This next technique is also helpful, but I recognize it is controversial in the birding world.  I have the app iBird Pro on my cell phone and use it in the field.  It is similar to the standard field guide with pictures, ranges, descriptions, etc. but is lighter than my old field guide, which I usually now leave home. The added feature is its ability to play the bird songs, including multiple variations of the common calls.  I often hear a call and am not quite sure of the source; is it the Red or White-breasted Nuthatch?  Play the songs and solve it right there.  Which vireo is that in the canopy? Play the song of the likely bird and see if it matches or responds.  Some previously unseen bird will fly close or poke its head up out of the underbrush to check you out, giving a confirming visual ID.  Some say this is intrusive and needlessly agitates the bird.  I say that if used in moderation, briefly, and infrequently, it can be a powerful tool.  When I bird with a group I ask permission before playing a call, as some are adamantly opposed to this technique.  Two birders were chasing a rarity in southern Arizona, one on each side of the ravine and invisible to each other.  Each was playing the song on their device and hearing the reply from the other, thinking they had finally found their long sought-after life bird.  You can imagine the frustration and disappointment when they tracked the sound to the other birder’s I-phone.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

I often bird with a creative friend who has come up with a great idea for identifying bird sounds in the field.  I hesitate to reveal it, for fear of patent violations, but will anyway.  You may have heard of the app Shazam that can identify almost any tune by name and artist, even in a crowded restaurant with loud background noise.  Shouldn’t it be possible to create a similar app that can pick up birdsong and identify the artist bird? Someday someone will figure this out and create such a tool that will help countless birders, and also become rich in the process.  Remember, you heard it here first. Birdsong has inspired poets and composers throughout our history and brought joy to millions, even when we cannot identify the specific source.  I hope this post helps you match the song with the bird during your next trip afield. Learning bird songs and calls is a slow stepwise process, but the avian symphony that greets us at dawn is one of the wonders of nature and greatest joys of birding.

Birding San Diego

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Old Lighthouse at Point Loma

The mariner warily approached the coast, scanning the horizon with a hand-held telescope. He first saw the promontory rising 422 feet above sea level and the brown sandstone cliffs extending to the north.  As the 200 ton galleon, San Salvador, drew closer to land he could make out the low sandspit and island to the south and the tempting narrow channel between the two.  Proceeding carefully he could make out the waves crashing onto the base of the cliffs forming countless tidal pools teeming with seabirds and gulls.  The sandy beaches to the south were also populated with shorebirds.  Once through the narrows the esturary opened into a glorious protected harbor with a narrow plain at waters edge, but with hills and low mountains visible a short distance inland to the east. The year was 1542 and the mariner was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer on a mission for Spain to explore the coast north of Mexico.  He was the first European to see what would later be named California.  The promontory would be named Point Loma and years later would display his statue near its peak.  The low sandy island would be called Coronado, and the harbor would become San Diego.

Cabrillo Monument

Cabrillo Monument

Almost 300 years later another sailor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., made a similar landing at Point Loma in 1835 aboard the Pilgrim, out of Boston, Massachusetts. He chronicled his adventures in the classic memoir Two Years Before the Mast.  Their mission was to retrieve the cattle hides accumulated by sailors who were previously left encamped on the beach and sustained by hunting in the hills.  At the time San Diego was still a small Mexican town.

Fast forward to 2015.  Another mariner approached these same shores as the fog suddenly rolled in, making the passage something more than routine. They started sounding their fog horn, primarily to warn the day sailors that crowded the narrow channel. This ship was the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), a 684 foot amphibious transport dock, capable of delivering 800 marines and their equipment wherever they are called. This mariner and Officer of the Deck was my son.

Our cross-country trip was to see him and the return of his ship to the home port after several weeks at sea, reenacting an age-old tradition of anxiously and expectantly watching for the return of a loved one from the sea.  We arrived at the peak of Pt. Loma hours before the ship entered the channel giving me a chance to practice exposure settings and sun angles on several other ships departing the harbor.  I even had the telephoto lens available in case the Lieutenant JG was visible on the bridge.  It was a glorious clear day giving breath-taking views of San Diego and the waterfront.  But a birder is always birding and on the lookout for new species, especially on a first trip to a new part of the world, as this was for me.  With everything ready my wife took the time to visit the old lighthouse and visitor’s center, while I headed down the seaside sandstone cliff trails looking for birds. IMG_5146

IMG_5181 The soft sandstone of the west-facing cliffs is being eroded by continuous wind and wave action, revealing dinosaur fossils from the Late Cretaceous Period 75 million years ago.  Near the base of the cliffs around the tidal pools I found Brown Pelicans, Great Blue Heron, Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, Heermann’s Gull, and the ubiquitous Western Gull.  I finally learned the reason for the “double-crested” modifier for the cormorant.  The western sub-species has paired white head tufts in breeding season, lacking on the eastern variety familiar to me.  The Heermann’s Gull is a beautiful red-billed, black-legged west coast bird, breeding in Mexico but seen northward along the California coast in non-breeding season.

Heermann's Gulls

Heermann’s Gulls

Near the top of the cliffs there are dense aromatic sages, low-growing succulent shrubs, flowers, and grasses, giving refuge to numerous passerines.  It was difficult to get a good look or photo of these, but with some patience I was rewarded with a beautiful Orange-crowned Warbler, Rock Wren, and California Towhee, all life birds.  White-crowned Sparrows and Western Scrub Jays were also abundant.

Vast fields at Pt. Loma

Vast fields at Pt. Loma

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

California Towhee

California Towhee

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

Enough birding.  It was time to return to the Cabrillo Monument and stake out the perfect position to see the return of the USS Anchorage.  Do you believe in Murphy’s Law?  Fifteen minutes before the anticipated arrival, a dense fog bank rolled over us obscuring the channel and all of Pt. Loma. Visibility zero. Right on cue we heard the Anchorage’s deep fog horns but could barely see to the edge of the cliff.

Old Lighthouse, Point Loma

Old Lighthouse, Point Loma

Disappointment.  Plan B:  Run to the car and make haste to downtown San Diego and public dock at the USS Midway museum, without getting a speeding ticket.  Only 20 minutes to spare, but with a little luck it was still possible to see the ship underway. We arrived at the park just as the Anchorage was clearing the bend in the river and passing by.  The sun was wrong, the lighting was poor, and the photos borderline, but that did not keep a lump from my throat and some understandable parental pride and patriotism as that great ship passed by, under the Coronado Bridge and into its berth.

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

While in home port our son lives in an apartment attached to a charming neo-Victorian home on Golden Hill, recently and carefully renovated by its owners.  Fortunately for me it is located on the southern border of Balboa Park, a 1200 acre urban park, one of our country’s oldest, established in 1835. This greenway is quite different than the well known Central Park and Boston Common of the east coast.  This is a “California style” park bisected by a canyon, two freeways and crisscrossed by walking paths.  It also features museums, gardens, several theaters, a golf course and the famous San Diego Zoo.  For me the attraction was the birds.  An early morning walk here gave up 14 species including a life bird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker. It seemed like Anna’s Hummingbirds were everywhere.  I was initially confused by the warblers, but finally decided they were all Yellow-rumped with varying intensities of plumage.

Nutall's Woodpecker

Nutall’s Woodpecker

A later tour of the coastline including San Diego Harbor, Coronado Island and a northern trek to La Jolla Shores revealed many more birds among the coconut-oiled sunbathers, surfers, and seaside mansions.  These included a Pacific Loon (a life bird), Royal Terns, Willets, Surf Scoters, Greater Scaup, and mucho gulls.

Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon

La Jolla Shores

La Jolla Shores

However, the highlight of the weekend was a personal tour of the USS Anchorage by our son, who proudly showed us the warship, his home-away-from-home and workplace since last July.

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

The 4-day weekend was much too short. As the plane took off for home and circled over Pt. Loma and San Diego Harbor I was treated to one last panoramic view of the Pacific Fleet, lined up at their docks. I was once again reminded of the daily dedication and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, witnessed first hand, each doing their small part to project strength and keep us safe.  The rows of white gravestones, visible even by plane, at Rosecrans National Cemetery again reminded me that for some the sacrifice was ultimate.  It was a good birding weekend, but also so much more.

A Big Day in South Florida

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When I was asked to join two of my favorite birders for a trip to the hinterlands of central, south Florida, the decision was easy.  Visions of Crested Caracaras, Florida Panthers, and large alligators kept me awake the night before and the 5 o’clock alarm was not even needed.  This was not a trip to the popular and great birding hotspots along the coast, but rather an ad lib trip to the non-populated interior–yell to stop the car when you see something.  For those of you not familiar with this region it is a vast, flat, grassland, interrupted by small copses of palms and live oaks with water in roadside ditches and canals.  It occupies hundreds of square miles north of the Everglades and south of Lake Okeechobee.  The large cattle ranches and cowboys reminds you of the Great Plains or Big Sky country of our west, but the palms, other vegetation and wildlife are so very different.

Cattle Egret A fairly easy ID

Cattle Egret
A fairly easy ID

We got off to a stuttering start.  I left home in shorts and tee shirt expecting another hot Florida day, but by the time I reached the car realized it was only 49 F.  After changing into more practical garb we stopped for coffee and food at Panera Bread, and gas at the last station we’d see that day–even they were out of everything but hi-test.

We never intended to do a “Big Day”.  None of us are very competitive or ardent listers and just liked to bird, take pictures, and enjoy the company, banter, and puns that seemed non-stop.  But as the day progressed and the bird list grew I got the idea to use today’s list as a baseline that we could try to exceed on future trips.  Our “Big Day” was on.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara

So what is a “Big …” in the world of birding? It could be a day, month, or year, and could include a county, state, country, or world, or something as small as your yard or a 25 foot circle.  A “Big Sit” may appeal to some.  Just stake out a lawn chair in a promising location with plenty of food and cold beer, have your binoculars and scope ready and see what flies in.  The point is to see (or hear) as many bird species as possible in that time and space, usually competing with others on a similar quest. There are no referees or judges–you are on your honor.  These events apparently started in New Jersey in the 1920’s and were formalized to the “World Series of Birding” by the NJ Audubon Society in 1984.  Last year the winning group at that event covering the whole state for 24 hours, listed 229 bird species.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

Wood Storks

Wood Storks

This type of birding was made famous by several publications.  Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand, by Kenn Kaufman is his true account of dropping out of school at age 16 to chase birds and break the American big year record–626 at the time.  He hitchhiked 69,000 miles on a shoestring budget but didn’t break the record.  He did become one of our most accomplished birding experts and lecturers.  The Big Year:  A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik describes 3 birders in close competition to beat the American record in 1998.  It later became a successful movie.  My wife likes to point out that both of these books have the word “obsession” in their title.

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What bird?

Our trek eventually brought us to the Dinner Island Ranch, east of Immokalee.  I’m still not sure about the “island” in this name since I saw very little water except in the ditches, but the birds and scenery were marvelous.  We birded for miles on the dirt roads crisscrossing this flatland, stopping the car and scrambling out at every siting or flyover, real or imagined.  Since we have seen and photographed these birds before, we’re now looking for the unusual pose, action shot, or bird-in-flight.  Gators were everywhere but one in particular made us stop the car for a closer look.  This large one was laying there with its eyes and mouth wide open–a unique shot, especially with a telephoto lens which allowed us to keep a safe distance.  They say gators are very fast over short distances, but you don’t have to out-run the gator–just the person next to you.  We took many great pictures but were puzzling over the bulging eyes, (do alligators get hyperthyroidism?) when the only non-physician in the group informed us that the gator was dead.  Birders are astute observers of nature, or so they say.

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara

145 miles and many bottles of water later we headed home, having seen 48 birds, a good number for the habitat, and a number low enough that we should be able to exceed it next year.  But some of us didn’t know when to quit.  We took a detour past the waste water management site to bag some ducks, but only added a Brown Pelican.  I was finished and dropped off, barely awake, but one companion soon called reporting a Muscovy Duck and Coot in his backyard and then set out for the beach in waning light to add some more.  Our 48 became 61 due to the unexpected second wind of this birder who unfortunately set our bar even higher for next year.  But you know, I can’t wait to do it all over again.  We still didn’t see that Florida Panther.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Birding Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

View from Mount Auburn to Boston

View from Mount Auburn to Boston

Mount Auburn Cemetery, called “Sweet Auburn” in the early 19th century, was founded in 1831 as the nation’s first garden cemetery.  This style of less formal burial grounds was a distinct break from the colonial-era church graveyard and began the public parks and garden movement that led to many urban parks, including Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park in the 1850’s.  This 174 acre oasis of beautiful rolling hills, pathways, and ponds sits on the border of Watertown and Cambridge, just northwest of Boston.  Along with being an active cemetery it also is a favorite destination for birders, walkers, gardeners, and admirers of nature’s beauty.

Willow Pond

Willow Pond

My first visit to Mount Auburn was with my parents in the late 1950’s, to the gravesite of my grandfather and his parents.  My grandmother was buried there a few years later.  Now as a birder I return to the cemetery every fall as part of yearly Boston trips to visit family.  Migrating birds also pay a twice yearly visit to these grounds.  From a thousand feet the tired and depleted migrating bird sees this green oasis and clear ponds within the urban concrete desert as an ideal stopover place.  For the non-migrators it makes an ideal year-round home.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

After 32 years of living on the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, Boston admittedly overwhelms a bit.  My discomfiture was heightened as I, in my birding garb and draped with camera, telephoto lens, and binoculars, boarded the city bus crammed with commuters and college students headed to Cambridge and MIT, all plugged into their pods, pads and phones and showing that blank municipal stare.  Across the Charles River, through Central Square, change buses at Harvard Square, down Mount Auburn Street, past the hospital on the left, the cemetery is the next stop.  I’m the only one who got off. A visitor can find a useful map just inside main gate, and rest rooms near Story Chapel on the left.  You will need the map as the grounds are covered with a myriad of trails, paths, and roads covering the entire site.  There are dark, cool, glens, and rolling hills with overlooks.  I have been lost among the monuments more than once, but if you keep walking you’ll eventually get out.  You can climb Washington tower at the top of Mount Auburn for commanding views to the south.  Birding in a cemetery is a unique experience.  The monuments are a constant reminder that there is so much to see and do, and so little time.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

My trips to the cemetery have always been in late autumn and I have seen 32 species there, including 2 life birds; a Hooded Merganser and White-winged Crossbill.  If you visit during the spring and fall migrations you can expect to see more.  The Crossbill was part of the irruption of 2012.  Crossbills rely on a conifer seed source and when that source fails the bird looks outside its normal range for sustenance. This was the case in 2012.  Other highlights include the resident Red-tailed Hawk, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. You’ll find strategically located benches at the ponds giving great opportunities for seated birding and a chance to take in the gorgeous vistas.

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill

This year’s trip to Mount Auburn had special meaning for me.  It was my first visit since the September funeral and internment of my parents, conducted by my Reverend sister and attended by our extended family and friends.  But I stood alone now at the gravesite. No flowers, but I did have a small American flag.  It was Veterans Day and Dad was a proud veteran of WWII.  No tears. Just two lives, well lived, finally home again in Cambridge and  Sweet Auburn. IMG_5922

Birding 101

 

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For any new or potential birders out there I thought I would do a brief review of some things I wish I had known when I began this fascinating hobby.

1) Bird Alone.  At first glance this may seem antisocial and incompatible with #’s 2 and 3 below, but let me explain.  A new birder needs time and space to learn and practice some basic skills.  Just seeing a bird and then finding it with binoculars is not easy at first.  With practice you’ll keep your eye on the bird and slowly raise the binoculars and find it in the eyepiece, but not having this skill frustrates the new birder when everyone else is enjoying the bird.  Birdwatching is all about watching.  In addition to the obvious field marks, watch the bird’s behavior, and hear its sounds.  Some birds are always on or near the ground (White-throated Sparrow).  Some are constantly pumping their tail (Palm Warbler). You’ll see eventually that advanced birders are making their ID’s by the birds “JISS” (taken from G.I.S.S.–general impression, size, and shape), as much as from the field marks.  Learn the common “back yard” birds first and then the “rarities” or birds not usually seen around your feeder or porch will become more obvious.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

2) Bird With Others.  Once you’re looking into the correct end of the binoculars you’ll find endless pleasure and see more birds when you bird with others.  There always seems to be someone in the group with a special gift of seeing birds high in the canopy or deep in the shrub. Others will point out birds you are not acquainted with yet, or tell you about a new birding hotspot.  You can see what binoculars and guidebooks others are using and pick up unexpected pearls. I learn something every time I bird with others and just plain have more fun.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

3) Bird With Experts.  Most counties have a birding club that sponsor frequent trips to the local hotspots, and these clubs usually have several world-class birders.  Talbot County, Maryland, where I live, is especially fortunate to have a club with many.  These are birders with years of experience; some seem to bird almost daily and their vast knowledge and eBird year lists are impressive.  You quickly marvel at their expertise in birding by ear–hearing the bird long before or in-lieu of seeing it, or recognizing a bird with only a fleeting glance of its shape or behavior.  They know when its time in spring to expect a given bird in the region, and when the bird will nest or migrate in the fall.  Most enjoy sharing all this with an interested novice.

A trip to birding hot-spots in your region will introduce you to experts.  For those in the North East I recommend a week-end in Cape May, New Jersey.  I doubt that there is a place that has more birding experts per square foot and organized bird walks, especially during the spring and fall migrations.  The hawk-watch platform at the Cape May State Park always seems to be staffed with experts.  Check out the Cape May Bird Observatory website for schedules and maps.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

4) Binoculars.  My experience with binoculars is typical, but not ideal for new birders.  I first started by using an old pair family binoculars acquired in the 1950’s.  Later I started using a pair of 10X50’s I bought for astronomy.  When I started serious birding I upgraded stepwise to several pairs in the “mid-price” range, never believing I wanted to spend the big bucks ($2000 or more) that the high end glass required.  One day I was birding with a group in Cape May and the expert guide must have noticed my binoculars and generously lent me a pair of Zeiss binoculars for the walk.  The difference was amazing!  The image was so much brighter, sharper, and clearer and the field of few much larger.  Birding was easier with these and much more fun.  I was convinced that the price for great binoculars is money well spent and a good pair will give you a lifetime of pleasure.  The old glass did not go to waste.  There’s one in the truck, one in the car, one at the windowsill near the feeder, and one at the bathroom window.  You never know when you’ll need them.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

5) Guide Book.  You need a good birding guide book–one that you will use frequently and become very familiar with in the field. There are many on the market and the choice can be difficult.  Let me go out on a limb and recommend one.  I have used many and believe the Ken Kaufman “Field Guide to Birds of North America” is the most user-friendly book available.  It is relatively small and light, fitting easily into a big pocket.  It is well-indexed, nicely arranged, and covers all the birds of North America.  The other heavier guides I keep at home for those especially difficult ID’s.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

6) Publications.  I foolishly get more birding magazines and newsletters than I can possibly read.  Be smarter than me and get one and study it well.  Again let me go out on another limb and recommend the “Bird Watcher’s Digest”, a small bimonthly magazine edited by William H. Thompson III, is packed with birding pearls, sitings, equipment and book reviews, meeting announcements, etc.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

7) Use http://www.eBird.org   This Cornell website is amazing.  Not only does it allow you to tabulate, manage, and track your observations, but shows you who else is seeing what, where, and when in your neighborhood, or anywhere in the world you care to visit.  Its also loaded with helpful birding tips.  And it is FREE!  When I recently travelled to Japan and Italy I first went to eBird to learn what to expect at each location and created a target list of birds for the area.  Similarly your observations will help other birders and the people at Cornell tracking bird populations globally.  I find much pleasure in comparing what I saw this year, or month, to the prior.  Check it out.

I hope this helps you get started.  Good luck and happy birding.

Super Bowl Birding; Eagles vs. Osprey

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Pelican Bay Beach

When you are in Florida, do what the Floridians do–walk on the beach.  What better way to start the day, especially when the walk is with good friends and ends with brunch on the beach.  That’s exactly how we began Super Sunday 2015.  The dilemma for a birder every time you leave the house is always, do I take the camera and/or binoculars, or travel au naturale?  This depends on your companions, time constraints, weather and lighting constraints, etc.  This time I left the equipment home, and soon regretted the decision.

Pelican Bay has a wonderful walk along the berm and through the mangroves before reaching the beach.  There are always wading birds here, but today they were numerous and spectacular and the light was perfect.  Great Blue Herons posed within feet of the path and a large flock of Snowy Egrets landed nearly at our feet.  There were Tricolor Herons, Great Egrets, White Ibis, Brown Pelicans, and Little Blue Herons just waiting for the eager photographer. Oh well… but it got worse.

White Ibis

White Ibis, another day

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron, another day

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron, another day

After brunch we headed north on the beach 2 miles to complete the loop back to the condo.  An astute birder friend called out a low-flying Osprey heading out to sea and carrying a fish, a good photo-op itself.  As we were debating why the bird wasn’t heading inland to land and eat his catch, our question was answered.  A beautiful adult Bald Eagle swooped down and angled for the fish.  Eagles are like that–they rarely catch their own, preferring to find dead fish or steal from others.  The osprey, more concerned now with survival than brunch, dropped the fish and turned on the eagle chasing it inland, right over our heads, all this in perfect light and close enough for great action shots.  What an episode to witness and photo-op to miss!  The only photo we got was from an non-birder who had a cell-phone handy and was quick enough to capture the eagle flyover.

Osprey

Osprey, another day

Bald Eagles, from another day

Bald Eagles, another day

My friend and fellow birder/photographer, and I were lamenting the missed opportunity when my wife, who always favors the “camera free” walks, reminded us of William Blake’s poem “Eternity”…

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

She and Blake are right.  Sometimes its better to just observe and enjoy the unexpected events that surround us everyday, and leave the camera home.

Brown Pelicans at Pelican Bay

Brown Pelicans at Pelican Bay

Pelican Bay Beach

Pelican Bay Beach

Birding in Toscano

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Six of us, 3 couples, had been dreaming of a trip to Tuscany since we had so much fun together at a dude ranch in Wyoming years ago.  Now with our children grown and on their own (sort of), we all met in Tuscany, just outside San Gimignano early last October.  My brother-in-law did a fantastic job choosing the villa, Chiesetta di Santo Pietro, on a hill just outside the little village of Pancole and about 3 km from SG.  This is an 11th-12th century chapel lovingly restored by Ivo and Olga.  For a visitor from the New World, the Old World antiquity is fascinating. In addition to the sampling the wonderful wines, food, and day trips to Florence, Siena, birding was high on my list.

Chiesetta di Santo Pietro

Chiesetta di Santo Pietro

We’ve all heard the stories of the shy birds in Italy due to years of shooting, and I did indeed experience that on an earlier trip to Umbria.  You saw the bird, he saw you, and was gone before you could snap a picture or get your binoculars to your face.  So when I arose at dawn on the first day and quietly crept around the perimeter of the property I was pleasantly surprised to see this perching Robin who let me get reasonable shots.

Eurasian Robin

European Robin

I know, its just a robin, but for a North American birder, its a great bird.

The villa sits along a gravel road which winds down a hill and around the bend, with breath-taking vistas at every turn.  Initially I was alone, but soon there were a few, and then many hikers with walking sticks and knapsacks.  Many were alone, but some were in groups, all obviously on more than a day trip by the look of their packs.  They spoke Italian, I don’t, but we could share a hearty “bon giorno”.  I later learned I was birding on the Via Francigena, an ancient and famous pilgrim road first documented by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury in 990, linking Canterbury to Rome. The way is still used today by pilgrims or people just out for a scenic hike along the hills of western Italy.

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Three mornings of birding around the villa gave up 13 species including life birds: Sardinian Warbler, European Robin, and European Goldfinch.  One beautiful sunny afternoon, when the others went into town to shop, I stayed back to get some sun, read, and sip wine on the patio at the top of the hill, enjoying the Tuscan hills and vineyards stretching out below for miles.  I was smart enough to have my camera and the Canon 400mm F5.6L lens at the ready, just in case. Predictably I was soon asleep, but awoke just as a gorgeous Eurasian Jay was picking through the grass, not more than 25 feet away, oblivious of me.  He didn’t fly as I slowly reached for the camera and got many good shots before he finally noticed me and remembered he was in Italy.  What a colorful bird, as are all the jays.

Eurasian Jay

Eurasian Jay

Eurasian Jay

Eurasian Jay

Later in the week we hired a guide and had a memorable day birding and checking out the ancient ruins along the western coast of Italy–I’ll describe that in another post.  What could be better than a trip to Toscano; wine, food, antiquity, with good friends–and of course birding.  Life is sweet.

Eurasian Blue Tit

Eurasian Blue Tit

European Robin

European Robin