Category Archives: Travel

Waiting For News … Again

Whimbrel (photo by Arturo Mann from Wikimedia Commons) This is not Hope.
Whimbrel (photo by Arturo Mann from Wikimedia Commons) This bird is not Hope.

News from the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, is horrific now that two Category 5 hurricanes have passed through the islands in just two weeks.  Homes, infrastructure and habitat are all destroyed. Our hearts and help go out to everyone affected by these storms.

Images of the widespread damage also have made me wonder:  Did birds survive these hurricanes?

Early this month one particular bird, a whimbrel named Hope, survived Hurricane Irma on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.  Did she survive Hurricane Maria?  We don't know yet.

North American whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) that breed in the tundra of northwest Canada make long migrations to their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.  To understand their migration The Center for Conservation Biology fitted a few of them with satellite transmitters when the birds made migration stopovers on Virginia's eastern shore.  One bird, nicknamed Hope, was tracked for three years beginning in 2009. Her transmitter was removed after it broke in 2012 but she still wears two colorful leg tags. Every year she returns in late August to St. Croix.

After Hurricane Irma I was encouraged on September 13 when The Center for Conservation Biology sent news that Hope had survived Irma.  The map below provides perspective on this miracle.

St. Thomas and St.John (purple pin markers) took a direct hit from Irma.  Hope spends the fall and winter on St. Croix (blue pin) at Great Pond (yellow star).  She was fortunate that Irma passed more than 45 miles north of her location.  St. Thomas and St. John were so devastated by Irma that survivors were evacuated to Puerto Rico and St. Croix.  (Click here to see a video of Hurricane Irma damage on the U.S. Virgin Islands, posted by the U.S. Navy.)

Then on the night of September 19 Hurricane Maria blew through the islands, passing only 10 miles south of St. Croix.  Hurricane force winds scraped the island for 7.5 hours before slamming Puerto Rico.  The southwestern corner of St. Croix was hardest hit.

As with Hurricane Irma it will take a while to find out what happened.

And I wonder: Did Hope make it through Maria, too?

We're waiting for news ... again.

Read more about Hope surviving Hurricane Irma -- and see photos of her -- in this article at The Center for Conservation Biology.


(photo of a whimbrel (this is not a photo of Hope) by Arturo Mann via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

p.s. For more news of the Virgin Islands see the Virgin Islands Daily News.

Where Peregrines Nest in the Wild

Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year, for the first time since 1984, my husband and I aren't at Acadia National Park this month but I think of it every day.  If I was there I'd be stopping by the base of this mountain to scan for peregrines.  It's one of the few wild places where I know they nest.

On Throw Back Thursday here's a description of the peregrines' wild nest sites at Acadia with news from 2010:

Where The Peregrines Nest


(photo of the Precipice Trail at Acadia National Park from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Beautiful Finland

Early morning, 5:30am, Rikkavesi lake
Early morning, 5:30am, Rikkavesi lake

Two weeks ago my husband and I returned from a visit with friends in Finland.  Today I'll share some of the beautiful scenery and tell you a bit about the country.

Finland is a Nordic country located between Scandinavia and Russia.  For centuries it was alternately ruled by its two powerful neighbors, Sweden and Russia.  This year Finland celebrates 100 years of independence, released by Russia in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Location of Finland (map from Wikipedia)
Location of Finland (map from Wikipedia)

Though it's the eighth largest country in Europe, Finland is the most sparsely populated in the European Union.  One quarter of its 5.5 million people live in metro Helsinki with the rest spread out among towns and country, mostly in the south.

We stayed with our friends Erkki and Helena at their summer cottage on Lake Rikkavesi (very sparsely populated; located at blue arrow) and at their home in Joensuu, a town of 58,000.

The area where we stayed in Finland (population map of Finland from Wikipedia, annotated)
The area where we stayed in Finland, July 2017 (population map from Wikipedia, annotated)

Their summer cottage consists of three buildings -- sleeping space, living space, and an outhouse.  It's semi-rugged with electricity, a wood burning sauna (everyone has a sauna in Finland!), lake water for washing not drinking, and a composting toilet.  Middle of the night bathroom visits required walking outdoors, but no problem. It is never dark in July.

Most of my photos below were taken at Lake Rikkavesi (check the captions for more information).  Click on any photo to see a larger version of the slideshow.

  • Coming to Kuopio: From the air an island with a crop of mustard seed
    Coming to Kuopio, 1 July 2017: From the air, an island with a crop of mustard seed


Beautiful Finland. The land of 188,000 lakes.


(photos by Kate St. John)

The Same Bird Everywhere

Northern shoveler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Northern shoveler (photo by Steve Gosser)

During my recent trip to England and Finland I was happy to see lots of new Life Birds but was amazed at how many birds were the same at home and abroad.

Some are on both continents because they were introduced -- rock pigeons, house sparrows, starlings, ring-necked pheasants and mute swans. But many in the duck, gull and tern families occur in both places because they flew there on their own. There are usually different subspecies on each continent(*) but in a few cases the exact same species is everywhere.

Here are four such birds, easily found in North America and Europe. There are no subspecies so if you've seen one you've seen them all.

Above, I saw northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) in England where they're simply called "shovelers." I was amazed to learn they're the same bird everywhere though I should have known. They breed across northern America and Eurasia.


Red-breasted merganser (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-breasted merganser (photo by Steve Gosser)

Red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) breed in northern America and Eurasia and travel far on migration (for a merganser). They spend the winter at both salt and fresh water so it's no wonder they can change continents.


Caspian tern (photo by Steve Gosser)
Caspian tern (photo by Steve Gosser)

Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) are the largest tern on earth and found on every continent except Antarctica, though their distribution is scattered on coasts and in the interior. In western Pennsylvania they're at Presque Isle in the spring.


Great black-backed gull (photo by shellgame on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Great black-backed gull (photo by shellgame via Flickr Creative Commons license)

And finally, great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) are coastal and Great Lakes birds found on both sides of the North Atlantic. As the largest member of the gull family this bird is so powerful that it eats smaller gulls, even adults!

When you see a great black-backed gull at the beach this summer, consider this:  It's the same bird everywhere.


(Great black-backed gull photo by shellgame on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original. All other photos by Steve Gosser)

(*) p.s. A few examples of different subspecies between North America and Europe: green-winged teal, sandwich tern, barn swallow, barn owl, peregrine falcon.

On Silent Wings

Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I mentioned that seeing a barn owl in flight was the visual highlight of my trip to England.  Today I'll give you a taste of what it was like to watch this beautiful bird.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) live around the world (see map) but declined 50-70% in parts of their range after World War II due to intensive farming practices, the conversion of farmland to housing, and the introduction of pesticides.  In the U.K. the population fell 70% by the 1980s.  In North America they're now endangered in Vermont, Connecticut and the Midwest, including Ohio.

Because barn owls are so secretive and rare in the U.S. I had seen only one in the wild -- and it was roosting.  I had never seen a barn owl fly.  What a thrill it was to see one hunting the tall grass near the River Wensum in England.

The short video below is similar to my experience, though not the same owl.


I know I wouldn't have seen a barn owl in Britain if it weren't for the decades-long efforts of local wildlife agencies and trusts working to restore this bird to the English countryside.  One such group is The Barn Owl Trust located in Devon near Dartmoor.  Since 1988 they've worked to conserve barn owls and educate the public about these beautiful birds.  Learn more in their video below.


Thanks to conservation efforts around the world, we're still thrilled to see barn owls float by on silent wings.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Flight sequence video from the BBO Wildlife Trust on YouTube. Video on the history of The Barn Owl Trust UK from YouTube)

Birding Norfolk’s Fens & Forests

Bearded reedling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Bearded reedling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My husband and I joke that we're "Bird and Word."   I'm addicted to birds.  He spends time with poetry, literature and art.  On our recent trip to England we made sure to pursue our dreams.  While Rick spent time in London visiting museums and the haunts of great poets, I went on a three day Oriole Birding tour of Norfolk County's fens and forests.

The Norfolk Summer Breeders and Late Migrants tour on 28-30 June was great!  Seven of us joined bird guide Ashley Saunders for a tour that included 114 species (88 were Life Birds) despite relentless wind and rain on the first day.

From the moment I arrived at Kings Lynn railway station to the end of the tour, everything was taken care of:  transportation, meals, lodging and birds. We stayed at the Blue Boar Inn in Great Ryburgh where we enjoyed excellent accommodations, delicious food, and cool birds just a short walk away at the River Wensum.  Every day we spent 10+ hours in the field but our schedule included pauses for elevenses, lunch and 4pm tea, all packed in the van so we could eat outdoors and not miss the birds.  How civilized!

Ashley tailored the tour for the weather, recent rarities, and our wish lists.  He's excellent at finding birds and making sure everyone sees them.  The advantage is that you see even more this way.  While we paused for a lingering look at Dartford warblers a rare pair of European honey buzzards flew over.  Woo hoo!

I saw all the birds I wrote about in the past few weeks except, of course, the birds of Finland.  And there were bonuses: I had never seen a chaffinch, an extremely common bird, so Ashley paused at a bird feeder to show me a brightly colored male.  Wow!  Click here to see a male chaffinch, about the size of a house finch.

Here's Ashley's summary of our Norfolk tour on the Oriole Birding website.

If you're visiting England, I highly recommend Oriole Birding for great looks at the best birds in the U.K.  You'll also enjoy Oriole's international tours departing from the U.K. for birding sites around the world. Check out their website by clicking on their logo above.


In case you're curious, here's my list of Best Birds.  They were very hard to choose:

  • Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)
  • Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) -- excellent looks at this peregrine-like falcon
  • Black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa) -- beautiful rusty color
  • Ruff (Calidris pugnax) in breeding plumage, far better than the non-breeding ruffs rarely seen in the U.S. in the winter
  • Bearded reedling (Panurus biarmicus shown above)
  • Great bitterns (Botaurus stellaris)
  • European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)
  • European honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus)
  • A family of little owls (Athene noctua)
  • And, near the Blue Boar Inn, superb views of a barn owl (Tyto alba) coursing over a field with rooks (Corvus frugilegus) wheeling in the background.  Without a doubt this was my visual highlight of the trip.
  • Last species on the tour: a family of peregrine falcons high up at their nest site in Kings Lynn.



(bearded reedling photo from Wikimedia Commons, Oriole Birding logo from the Oriole Birding website. Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s. Oriole Birding was named for the Eurasian golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), a rare bird that used to nest in poplar plantations in Norfolk County.  The golden oriole's nesting requirements are so specific that when the old poplars fell down, the birds did not come back.

Awesome Hawk in Helsinki

Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

My interest in the Birds of Europe was inspired by a two week trip my husband and I made to England and Finland.  In the days ahead I'll tell you more.  Meanwhile, here's one of my favorite sightings in Finland illustrated with my very bad photos.

Last Thursday afternoon I took a walk along the paved pedestrian trail in Helsinki's Töölönlahti Park.  I was enjoying close looks at arctic terns, great crested grebes, Eurasian coots, and barnacle geese(*) when a huge flock of mew and black-headed gulls swirled above me in alarm.

The gulls were the pursuing a bird of prey that quickly landed next to the sidewalk and stood on its prey the way our red-tailed hawks do in public.  The hawk was holding a wood pigeon and panting as it watched people, dogs and bicycles go by.  It was an adult male northern goshawk!

Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

In North America, goshawks avoid cities and people so I was stunned and pleased to see one so close.  However the bird's appearance confused me a bit.  In North America, juvenile goshawks have yellow eyes while adults have red eyes.  In Europe this bird's bright yellow-orange eyes indicate he's an adult.

His size fooled me, too.  He's so large that I thought he was female.  The next day I learned from my bird guide, Jari Laitasalo, that male and female adult goshawks have different head plumage in Finland.  Females have very pale heads so this bird's dark head indicates he's male.

Goshawks eat birds(**) but their favorite prey in northern Europe is the wood pigeon.  Jari explained that the abundance of prey in Helsinki's city parks has drawn goshawks and eagle owls to nest in the city center.

Not wanting to disturb this awesome bird I stood far back to take these photos with my cellphone and binoculars.  After 15 minutes he was still on the prey so I gave up and walked back to the hotel. Goshawks have more stamina that I do.


(photos by Kate St. John)

*  Barnacle geese were introduced in Finland and are now urban pests in Helsinki.
** The Finnish word for goshawk is kanahaukka:  kana=chicken, haukka=hawk.


Pigeon Of The Woods

Common Woodpigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common Wood pigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pennsylvania we have only one kind of pigeon and he isn't really ours.  He's the descendant of European birds named rock pigeons because they nest on cliffs.  This distinguishes them from another European pigeon that nests in trees, the common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus).

Wood pigeons used to be shy and stay in the woods but now they hang out in parks and cities and are the most numerous bird in London, even more numerous than rock pigeons.

When these two encounter each other you can see that "wood" is bigger than "rock."

Wood pigeon and feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wood pigeon looks at rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In some parts of Europe wood pigeons are migratory.  In winter large flocks browse in the fields as shown below.  Notice the bright white patches on their necks and white wing bars visible in flight.

When it's time to nest they're back in the trees ...

Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

... raising baby pigeons in the woods.


(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)