Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Jul 06 2016

Variations On A Warbler Theme

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray's warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray’s Warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Louis Aggasiz Fuertes drew these birds they were all the same genus, Oporornis.  This made sense because Connecticut, mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers are similar in appearance and habits.  All three breed in northern forests where they are shy, secretive skulkers, nesting and feeding on the ground.

The Connecticut warbler (at top) is the hardest to find, so hard that his nest wasn’t discovered for 70 years after the species was described.  His breeding grounds in the bogs and moist forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, upper Michigan and central Canada are protected by mosquitoes!   Birds of North America says, “Its secretive behavior and preference for breeding habitat in remote areas with abundant insect life has made it very difficult to study.”  No kidding!

The mourning warbler (middle) has a wider distribution.  He breeds in second growth forests from British Columbia to Newfoundland and into the northern tier of Pennsylvania.  He’s one of the few warblers that benefits from human disturbance, preferring to nest in clearcuts 1 to 10 years old.  I usually see him during spring migration at Magee Marsh, Ohio.

MacGillivray’s Warbler (bottom) prefers second growth too, but he breeds at low to moderate elevations in the Rockies and Sierras.  I saw my first MacGillivray’s warbler (Life Bird!) in Glacier National Park in burned areas that are the dry mountain equivalent of a clearcut.

For many years the Oporornis genus calmly hummed along until two discoveries upset the apple cart.

Everyone thought these species never met on their breeding grounds … and they don’t … except for one spot in the Peace region of British Columbia near Dawson Creek where in 2009 Irwin et al. discovered that mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers hybridize.

Then in 2010 DNA evidence split the Oporornis genus.  Now the Connecticut warbler stands alone, though many websites and field guides have not caught up.

  • Old: Oporornis = [Connecticut, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat]
  • New: Oporornis = [Connecticut].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers]

In appearance and ancestry, these birds are variations on a warbler theme.


(illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jul 03 2016

Big Sky and Mountains

Published by under Travel

Snowy peak, Mount Jackson, Glacier National Park, Montana, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Snowy peak, Mount Jackson, Glacier National Park, Montana, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

At Montana’s Glacier National Park, June 27-30, 2016. The sky is big and so are the mountains.


Big Sky at Upper Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, 28 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Big sky at Upper Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, 28 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


This thunderstorm missed us completely.

Thunderstorm coming over the mountains, 28 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Thunderstorm coming over the mountains, Saint Mary, Montana, 28 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


Clouds and mountains, Glacier National Park, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Clouds and mountains, Glacier National Park, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


Sky reflected in a pond at Josephine Lake, Glacier National Park, 29 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sky reflected in a pond at Josephine Lake, Glacier National Park, 29 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


Sunrise as seen from the Red Eagle Trail, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sunrise along the Red Eagle Trail, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


Saint Mary Lake seen from the west, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Saint Mary Lake as seen from the west, Going To The Sun Road, Glacier National Park, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 02 2016

The Element Of Surprise

Published by under Mammals,Travel

Grizzly bear (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grizzly bear (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While visiting Glacier National Park on a Road Scholar birding trip this week, we heard that a mountain biker was killed by a bear just south of the Park. The incident made international news.

When a bear kills someone, wildlife officials investigate by collecting information on what happened, DNA samples of the bear and, ideally, the bear itself.  If it’s clear the bear was predatory (if it ate or wanted to eat the person) then the bear is euthanized.  If it was defending itself or cubs, officials weigh the evidence and it often goes free.

As of this writing the investigation is still underway, the bear hasn’t been found, and it’s not confirmed that it was a grizzly.  The only thing we know for sure is that everyone was surprised — the bear, the victim, his fellow cyclist, and the local community.  Montanans are especially surprised and saddened because the victim was a very knowledgeable local resident, an officer in the U.S. Forest Service who knew all about bear safety.

How could such a thing happen?   Imagine this: A mountain biker is traveling downhill fast on a silent bike on a narrow trail through a thicket. There’s a bear in the thicket but there is no sound to warn the bear and no time for it to move away.  Bears have a chase instinct and will pursue things that are moving fast.  UPDATE JULY 3: The cyclist collided with the bear before the fatal attack.

Here’s more about what happened near West Glacier, Montana:

Hopes Dimming But Search Continues for Bear that Killed Cyclist Near Glacier Park


Were we worried about bears while visiting the park?  No.  We followed the guidelines on what to do in bear country. These are from the Glacier National Park website:

  • Never travel alone. Don’t trail run. (There were 11 of us walking and birding.)
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it.  (Our guide carried this form of pepper spray that has a special nozzle.)
  • Make human noise especially talking, singing, clapping or calling out at regular intervals.  NPS says, most bear bells are not enough.  (We talked a lot!)
  • Never leave food, garbage and scented items unattended. Always secure them. (We were always with our food, packing in and packing out.)
  • Be aware of your surroundings, especially when you are near bear foods, running water or thickets. Notice bears signs. (Our guide showed us bear claw marks and dig-outs.)

Bear attacks are extremely rare events.  There would be even fewer if we could eliminate the element of surprise.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. We never saw any bears at all, not a grizzly, not even a black bear.  It would have been nice to see a grizzly on a distant hillside from the car — but only under those circumstances!

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Jul 01 2016

Dipper or Ouzel

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Question: What songbird …

  • Lives along streams in western North America?
  • Looks like a plump, dark gray robin with a short tail?
  • Bobs his tail like a Louisiana waterthrush?
  • Does “push-ups” like an angry wren?
  • Swims and dives as if he was a duck?
  • Has white nictitating membranes (third eyelids) for seeing underwater?
  • Eats only underwater prey?

Answer: A bird who has two names — the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or water ouzel.

“Dipper” describes his behavior. While looking for prey from the water’s edge, he dips his body up and down as if doing push-ups on his legs. This action gives him two perspectives while looking through the water’s refraction: high view and low view.

“Ouzel” is an Old English word that now means “like a blackbird,” except that the water ouzel is not like any blackbird. 

In fact this water-loving species is unlike any songbird in North America. 

That’s why I came out west to see him at Glacier National Park.


p.s. Life Bird! I even saw one feeding his young, thanks to Denny Olsen, our Road Scholar birding guide.

(video from JVCdude on YouTube)

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Jun 30 2016

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.

In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.

His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds.  He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note.  The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.

Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality.  It sounds like this:

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.


(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 29 2016

See It Before It Melts

Published by under Travel

Saint Mary Lake at Glacier National Park (photo by NPS via Wikimedia Commons)

Saint Mary Lake at Glacier National Park (photo by NPS via Wikimedia Commons)

Many National Parks are named for their defining feature.  One has a Grand Canyon, another has Great Smoky Mountains, and yet another has Glaciers.  The canyon and the mountains won’t disappear but the glaciers are melting so I’m at Glacier National Park this week to see them.

Glacier National Park was the brainchild of George Bird Grinnell who fell in love with the place on his first visit in 1885.  Over the next 25 years he returned several times and advocated for the land to become a national park. His dream was realized on May 11, 1910.

The scenery here is breathtaking — a 1,583 square mile wilderness of majestic mountains, U-shaped valleys, gorgeous lakes and (for me) many Life Birds.

In the early 1900’s there were more glaciers than there are today.  According to Wikipedia:  “Of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park in the mid-19th century, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010. Scientists studying the glaciers in the park have estimated that all may disappear by 2030 if the current climate patterns persist.”

The glacier named for Grinnell himself is melting, too.  In 1850 it filled the entire valley. By 2009 most of the valley contained an iceberg lake.  And now …

Grinnell Glacier, before and after, 1981 and 2009 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Grinnell Glacier retreat: 1981 and 2009 with notes extending back to 1850 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

See it before it melts.


(photos of Glacier National Park from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s.  Click here for more about the disappearing glaciers.

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Mar 20 2016

Best Birds Last Week

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Purple Sandpiper at the jetty (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Purple Sandpiper at Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Taking a break from peregrine falcons, here are some birds that made me happy last week.

On March 14-17 I went on the Todd Bird Club outing to coastal New Jersey, led by Margaret and Roger Higbee.  We started at Cape May on Monday March 14 and worked our way north to the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Park by Thursday March 17.

It’s pretty hard for me to get a Life Bird in the eastern U.S. so I was pleased to see a seaside sparrow at the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Brigantine.  Click here to see what he looks like.   Thank you for finding him, Margaret!

On Wednesday we had close looks at purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) at Manasquan Inlet, above, and I finally learned why this brown sandpiper is called “purple.”  In good light his slight iridescence produces a pinkish-purple sheen in the middle of each feather.  Who knew!

It was a real treat to see the harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Barnegat Light. They’re fearless in rough water.

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

And every day we saw American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) and long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis).

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck in 16 March 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck, March 16, 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)


Coastal New Jersey is a great place to visit in March. Thanks to Margaret and Roger Higbee for a great trip and Tony Bruno for these gorgeous photos of last week’s Best Birds.


(photos by Anthony Bruno)

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Sep 18 2015

Like Plunging Arrows

Here’s a bird I see in Maine that we’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

Northern gannets (Sula bassana) nest in cliff colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic.  In the fall the Canadian population visits the Gulf of Maine on their way south for the winter.  The adults will spend October to April off the U.S. Atlantic coast while the juveniles may winter as far south as the Gulf coast.

Gannets are large seabirds (6.5 foot wingspan) that catch fish by plunge-diving from 30 to 130 feet above the sea.  When the fishing is good a huge flock gathers overhead, diving over and over again.  The video shows their amazing fishing technique, both in the air and underwater.

And, yes, these birds are moving fast.  They hit the water’s surface at 60 to 75 miles an hour!  Gannets can do this safely because they have no external nostrils and their faces and chests have air sacs that cushion their brains and bodies like bubble wrap.

Watch them plunge like arrows into the sea.


(video from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube)

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Sep 16 2015

Which Weasel?

Published by under Mammals,Travel

A stoat or short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Best Mammal” on my trip to Maine was an animal with three or four names but I don’t know which ones until I identify him — and that’s mighty hard to do, even for professionals.

While puttering around the South Lubec sand flats looking for shorebirds, I noticed animal prints in the damp sand.  They were almost the size of cat prints but the toes showed claws and the prints weren’t using direct register (hind prints stepping into front prints).  They looked sort of like this:

I guessed weasel but not necessarily the short-tailed weasel illustrated here. It may have been a long-tailed weasel.  (Click here to see his prints.)

On my way out I saw a weasel cross the dirt track ahead of me and disappear into tall weeds.  He was a long russet-colored mammal about the size of a red squirrel with short round ears, stubby legs, and a long black-tipped tail. His tail was at least as long as his body.

“Size of red squirrel” says short-tailed weasel.  “Long-as-body tail” says long-tailed weasel, shown below(*).

Long-tailed weasel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed weasel, Mustela frenata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

With such a short glimpse I can identify him generally but not specifically. His genus is weasel (Mustela), his species is either short-tailed (Mustela erminea) or long-tailed (Mustela frenata).  The two are notoriously hard to tell apart.  I’ll never know for sure.

No matter what he is he will soon shed his brown fur and turn white to match the winter landscape. If he’s a short-tailed weasel (erminea) you’ll recognize him as the ermine or stoat that’s native to Eurasia and North America.  His long-tailed North American cousin is just larger.

I’d like to see this weasel in his winter clothes but I’m not going to Maine in winter to find him. 😉


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Weasel tracks linked from U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.  Click on the image to see the original)

(* I didn’t take his picture — these photos are from Wikimedia Commons — so I had to rely on my memory.  Luckily least weasels don’t live in Maine so that narrows it to 2 possibilities.)

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Aug 08 2015

Why Arizona in Early August?

Published by under Travel

End of the road? The southern end of the Huachuca mountains heading toward Mexico (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is green from the monsoon rain. South end of the Huachucas, 2 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To a Pennsylvanian it’s counter intuitive that birding is excellent in southeastern Arizona in early August.  It’s hot — especially at the lower elevations (104oF in Tuscon last Monday) — but the birds are active because it’s the breeding season.  Breeding?  Here’s why.

From late June through September, it’s so hot that rising desert air creates a low pressure zone that sucks in moisture from the south, primarily from the Gulf of California in western Mexico.  When the moist air hits Arizona’s sky island mountains it condenses into clouds, isolated thunderstorms, and rain.  This annual weather pattern is called the monsoon.

The moisture doesn’t have to travel far. This mountain in Mexico, called Sierra San Jose, is easily visible from Sierra Vista, Arizona, headquarters of the Southwest Wings Festival.

Sierra San Jose in Mexico, seen in the distance (photo by Kate St. John)

“I can see Mexico from my front porch.”  Sierra San Jose peak as seen from Sierra Vista, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

While I was at the Festival it thundered every afternoon at 3:00pm and rained somewhere by 4:00pm.  “Somewhere” means you can see it raining in the distance but you often don’t get wet.  The downpours are intense but you can drive in and out of them, sometimes within a mile.  However, watch out for flash floods!

The rain brings cooler temperatures, green leaves and, I quickly learned, bugs.  (Don’t ask me about chiggers.)

Bugs are food for baby birds so the monsoon is a second Spring when the birds court, sing and nest. That’s why the Southwest Wings summer festival is held in early August.

I had a great time!  The festival offers free seminars and one-day or two-day paid outings with guides.  I chose the day-long outings where we hiked in morning, ate lunch in the shade, and watched hummingbirds at feeders in afternoon.  In this way I visited Madera, Box, Ash, Miller and Huachuca Canyons, the Sonoita grasslands, and Patagonia.

The guides were excellent!  I saw 139 species and 33 Life Birds during my time in Arizona, and that wasn’t my first trip to the area.  Did I tell you I saw four elegant trogons?  Yes!

I highly recommend the Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival.  Southeastern Arizona is a lovely place in early August.

The Huachucas from AZ-92 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Huachucas from Arizona route 92 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista as seen from route 90 (photo by Kate St. John)

Looking toward Carr Canyon, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

Carr Peak (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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