Category Archives: Travel

Wild Parrots in the Backyard

King parrot and crimson rosella perch on a fence (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 May 2022

Imagine having wild parrots visit your bird feeder.

Australia is home to 56 parrot species including the Australian king-parrot (Alisterus scapularis) and the crimson rosella (Platycercus elegans) of eastern and southeastern Australia. Though they nest in the woods they often visit urban parks and backyards.

Sometimes they scuffle over rights to the feeder, as captured by this feedercam. (The constant loud hooting in the video is a wonga pigeon.)

Occasionally an individual learns how to be hand-fed like a black-capped chickadee.

How cool it would be to have wild parrots in the backyard!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch White Storks Nest in Britain

White stork pair in Zamora (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 March 2022

White storks (Ciconia ciconia) are large iconic birds that spend the winter in Africa and nest in Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia. Famous for the legend that they bring babies, storks migrate long distances by soaring on thermals on 5 to 7-foot wing spans.

White stork range map with migration routes (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Storks avoid crossing open water that lacks thermals and are rare in the British Isles. Until 2020 they had not nested in the UK since 1416 when the last pair used the top of St Giles High Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. That changed in 2016 when the White Stork Project decided to reintroduce them to Britain. Since then they have released 166 juvenile storks brought in from Poland.

In 2020, for the first time in over 600 years, a pair of white storks nested successfully in the UK. This pair, which are part of the reintroduction program, nest at Knepp Castle in Horsham.

In this video they build the nest and pair bond by bill-clacking.

Right now the storks are gathering sticks and preparing to nest. Watch as they raise a family, live at the White Stork Project. (Note: Britain is 4 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. This is a good site to watch in the morning.)

Instead of bringing human babies these storks will bring their own.

White stork carrying baby (image from Shutterstock in 2013)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock; click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch Wading Birds

Wading birds feeding in Florida (screenshot from MyBarckyardBirding on YouTube)

24 February 2022

Take a visual trip to Florida and watch at least 10 species of birds feeding in a marsh. Notice that some stab at underwater prey, others nibble below the surface, some pick at the shore and some (the pink ones!) swipe their bills side-to-side.

How many of them can you identify? Leave a comment with your answer.

(Note: The embedded video is limited it to the first two minutes. Click here to see the entire 13.5 minute video.)

Check back later for my checklist from the video.

(screenshot and embedded video from MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)

LATER. Here’s my list of the birds I saw in the video:

  1. Great egret
  2. Snowy egret
  3. Little blue heron
  4. Tricolor heron
  5. Glossy ibis
  6. White ibis
  7. Roseate spoonbill
  8. Boat-tailed grackle
  9. Lesser yellowlegs
  10. Greater yellowlegs.

Seen While Birding in San Diego

Black-crowned night-herons perched on a chain-link fence, Lindo Lake, 20 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 February 2022

Back in Pittsburgh since Monday night, I’m getting reacquainted with the Eastern Time Zone and sorting through the few cellphone photos I took during the San Diego Bird Festival.

The festival lived up to its rating as one of the Top 10 Bird Festivals in the US. It is very well run with convenient accommodations, excellent bird guides and great birds! By the end of the festival I’d seen 155 species and 6 Life Birds (more to come when all the eBird lists get in). My Life Birds were:

  • Clark’s grebe,
  • Allen’s hummingbird (can’t believe I missed this bird nine years ago),
  • Pink-footed shearwater,
  • Red-masked parakeet,
  • California gnatcatcher,
  • Swinhoe’s white-eye.

I also saw some bird behavior I didn’t expect. The black-crowned night-herons at Lindo Lake stayed awake during the day in order to feast on food thrown down for the ducks. Above, two waited on the chain link fence for the handouts to arrive. When the food came the night-herons walked among the pigeons.

How many black-crowned night-herons can you count in this photo?

Black-crowned night-herons foraging with pigeons, Lindo Lake, 20 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Our next stop brought us to scrubland within sight of El Cajon Mountain(*) where we heard California gnatcathers and watched a peregrine pump past us on its way west.

El Monte area as seen from Hanson Pond Trail, 20 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

At El Monte County Park at the base of El Cajon(*) our guides showed us a great-horned owl roosting (digiscoped below) and a golden eagle near its nest on the mountain more than a mile away. (*If I have misnamed this mountain, please let me know.)

Great horned owl roosting, El Monte County Park, 20 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

While in the Tijuana River Valley on Saturday some flowers and fruits caught my eye. I didn’t know what they were until Janet Campagna and Dianne Machesney helped out.

The first two plants can only be found in southern California and Baja California. The first is lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), a member of the sumac genus native to coastal chaparral from Santa Barbara County to northern Baja California. Most sumacs have compound leaves. This one is odd for having simple leaves.

Lemonade berry at Tijuana Valley Regional Park ranger station, 19 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The golden-spined cereus (Bergerocactus emoryi), below, has such a limited range in Baja California, Santa Catalina Island, San Clemente Island, and San Diego that is listed “at risk” of disappearing due to habitat loss and climate change.

Golden spined cereus at Tijuana Slough NWR, 19 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sticky monkey-flower (Diplacus aurantiacus), below, is found in southwestern North America. Though it has a similar common name it is not in the same genus as our Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) in Pennsylvania (see our plant photo here).

Monkeyflower at Tijuana Slough NWR, 19 Feb 2022

On 16 February I took a quick walk on the beach and discovered that only one gull in this group can be found in western Pennsylvania. The black-backed gulls are western gulls. The gray-backed are California gulls. There is a Heerman’s gull in there and one ring-billed gull. Our bird guides explained that ring-billed gulls prefer to stay inland in San Diego.

On Monday I said goodbye to sunny San Diego. During my trip to California there was not enough time for an outing to the pine forest mountains. I’ll have to go back!

Sunset at Mission Bay Marina, 18 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Cutest Bird of the Year

Burrowing owl, Imperial County, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 February 2022, San Diego Bird Festival, Big Day across the county

In more than a decade of choosing an annual ABA Bird of the Year, this year’s choice, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), has the most personality. It’s hard to look at one posing near it’s burrow without seeing its defiant and endearing stance.

The owls, of course, take themselves seriously, choosing a mate, finding an appropriate prairie dog, ground squirrel or man-made burrow to nest in, and raising a family.

Burrowing owls at man-made nest near Salton Sea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The owls have had recent success in Imperial County, California where many of these photos were taken. Unfortunately by 2019 their population in nearby San Diego County was down to 75 pairs due to habitat loss and destruction of the ground squirrels whose holes the birds rely on.

In 2020 researchers began to turn that around by releasing eight young owls at Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve. In the winter of 2020-2021, 24 pairs were reintroduced to man-made burrows at Ramona Grasslands Preserve. This winter they plan to reintroduce several more. The hope is that the young birds raised at Ramona will return to their birthplace to nest.

Ramona grasslands, San Diego County (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more about burrowing owls in San Diego County at San Diego Burrowing Owls get new homes.

If you want to see great photos every day of the cutest Bird of the Year, follow Wendy @geococcyxcal on Twitter.

They are so photogenic!

UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: Did not see a burrowing owl on this trip.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Birding The Border

U.S. border fence enters the sea at Tijuana, as seen in 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 February 2022, San Diego Bird Festival, Birding the Border

Today I will see Mexico at a distance, through a fence.

On today’s “Birding the Border” tour we will be at times less than half a mile from the international border. I expect to see the border wall and northern Mexico through binoculars.

When I visited San Diego in 2013 we could walk within sight of this wall that extends into the ocean through Friendship Park of the Californias. What I didn’t know then was that 2013 was a happier time, the start of a brief period of international exchange on one day per year, Children’s Day in April. On that day, separated families with permission could meet briefly in the middle, touch and hug. The event did not occur every year and was permanently canceled by Border Patrol in 2018.

The U.S. side of Friendship Park is now closed all week except for 10a-2p on Saturdays and Sundays and you must drive in or walk 1.8 miles. Anyone can enjoy the land and beach on the Mexican side (left of fence). Americans are not free to do so on the U.S. side.

Border wall at Tijuana (left) and San Diego, US (right), 2007 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
At the Border, 2007: U.S. (left) with U.S. Border Patrol San Diego headquarters. Mexico (right) at Tijuana. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though the fence is meant to impede human activity it also disrupts the movement of water and mammals. Read more about it and see photos in this vintage article from 2013.

p.s. Note that the photos above are from 2007-2012. UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: Here are two photos from my 2022 trip.

Tijuana, Mexico (on top of the hill) and double border fence (dark rust colored) as seen from Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, 19 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tijuana Mexico on hill and the tall buildings in distance. Border wall is underlines in red on right. As seen from Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, 19 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

From Midway to Mexico

Black-footed albatross (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 February 2022, San Diego Bird Festival, Pelagic Tour

For most of their lives black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes) wander the North Pacific visiting land only to nest.  When they do 97.5% of them breed on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the green swath at the center of the Birds of the World map embedded below.

Of that 97.5%, one third nests on Midway Atoll, especially on Eastern Island which hosts the largest albatross colony in the world.

Unfortunately Eastern Island averages only 2.6 meters above sea level. This puts the albatross nests in grave danger. In 2011 a tsunami wiped out 30,000 nests and …

A 2015 study estimated that a 2-meter sea level rise and storm waves—possible in the next century under many climate change scenarios—would flood up to 91% of black-footed albatross nests on the Eastern Island of Midway Atoll.

Science Magazine: ‘They were destined to drown’: How scientists found these seabirds a new island home

Since black-footed albatrosses don’t reproduce until they are seven years old and then raise only one chick every two years the species will quickly go extinct if they don’t have a safe place to nest, so scientists developed a plan to establish a colony at Guadalupe Island, Mexico, a biosphere reserve off the west coast of Baja California that rises as high as 1,298 meters above sea level.

Location of Guadalupe Island, Mexico, embedded from Google Maps

This Science Magazine video shows how black-footed albatross chicks and eggs were translocated more than 3,500 miles to protect them from future extinction.

Today I’m on a pelagic tour off the coast of California where I hope to see the black-footed albatross, though they are rare at this time of year in the locations we are visiting. Even if we do see one, it is extremely unlikely that it came from Guadalupe Island.

To give you an idea of what a pelagic tour is like, here’s a video from a tour out of San Mateo County, California. Everyone’s focused on the northern fulmar and mention the black-footed albatross as a reference point. A reference point! It would be a Life Bird for me.

Video by Colette Micallef on Shearwater Journeys out of San Mateo County, CA.

UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: I did not see a black-footed albatross, as expected.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, range map embedded from Birds of the World; click on the cpations to see the originals)

Expecting “California” Birds

California thrasher, Lake Los Carneros, 2020 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 February 2022, at the San Diego Bird Festival, field trip Camp Pendleton

There are seven birds on San Diego County’s checklist with “California” in their names. I’ve seen five of them, the ones in italics (listed in alphabetical order).

  • California condor
  • California gnatcather(*)
  • California gull
  • California quail
  • California scrub-jay
  • California thrasher
  • California towhee

Today I’m hoping for a California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) that lives in the chaparral, a now rare shrubby habitat found only in California and a small part of Baja California (Mexico). One of the best places for chaparral in San Diego County is at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton where some of the land has been left wild. I’m heading there on the Camp Pendleton field trip.

California gnatcatcher, San Diego (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Nine years ago I saw another state specialty, the California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum), at top, who has a lot more personality than a gnatcatcher.

I’ll tell you more in this vintage article:

(*) UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: I saw the California gnatcatcher while on this trip. Life Bird!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Flying To The (Almost) Birdiest County

Heerman’s gull (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 February 2022

In a moment of pandemic optimism last November I signed up to visit the second Birdiest County(*) in the U.S. for the San Diego Bird Festival, 16-20 February 2022. Today I’m on my way.

The last time I visited San Diego was for the same event in 2013. Back then I saw 29 Life Birds, a feat I will not be able to match because I’ve already seen them, but I look forward to better views.

My favorites nine years ago included the Heerman’s gull (Larus heermanni), above, so dapper in his gray and white, the red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) who’s brighter than a yellow-bellied, and …

Red-breasted sapsucker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… the Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi) who looks like someone put a bunch of eastern warblers in a bag and shook them up. He’s the color of a black-throated green or magnolia warbler with field marks of other Setophaga‘s.

Townsend’s warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This time I hope for a better view of the rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata). In 2013 he was backlit and more distant on the pelagic tour than in this Wikimedia photo but I could see the silhouette of his rhino “horn.” Amazingly, he’s related to puffins.

Rhinoceros auklet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(*) Why is San Diego the second Birdiest County? When they ran these contests a decade ago Los Angeles County usually beat San Diego by a few species. Both have very diverse habitat. Find out in this vintage article.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click the captions to see the originals)

112 Million Year Mistake With a Backhoe

Dinosaur replica at Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum, Moab, UT (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 February 2022

Dinosaurs are big in Utah with at least 20 sites(*) where visitors can see evidence of their presence more than 100 million years ago. One site in the Top 10 of paleontology is the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, managed by the US Bureau of Land Management, where more than 200 tracks were preserved in an ancient mud flat 112 million years ago. The tracks were made by 10 distinct species, some of them the theropod ancestors of birds.

Dinosaur tracks at Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, Moab, UT (file photo from US Bureau of Land Management)

This video from BLM shows the site in an upbeat effort to teach people not to damage the dinosaur tracks.

BLM warns visitors not to damage the tracks but they did not think twice about beginning a $250 million dollar project to replace the boardwalk without consulting a paleontologist. At the end of January they made a 112 million year mistake with a backhoe.

A backhoe operator last week reportedly damaged part of one of North America’s largest and most diverse sets of early Cretaceous dinosaur tracks near Moab, Utah. The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite contains more than 200 tracks left by at least 10 different species about 112 million years ago. Last week, work was underway to replace a boardwalk at the location, which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Paleontologists say the agency provided no notice of the work and had no fossil expert on site to monitor it; BLM’s Moab office has lacked a paleontologist on staff since 2018. In a statement this week, BLM did not explain the apparent damage or accept responsibility, saying only “heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area,” and it “is committed to balancing resource protection and public access” to the site. The damage there was verified in person this week by Utah’s state paleontologist.

Science News At A Glance, 3 Feb 2022: Prized dinosaur tracks damaged

It was easy to find out what was damaged. Every single track is documented in photos and measurements. The news hit the papers and reverberated all the way to the U.S. Senate. Without admitting anything BLM halted the project immediately.

For heaven’s sake, Call Before You Dig!

(*) The photo at top was taken at Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and BLM; click on the captions to see the originals)