Friday, February 7, 2014

South Florida, Part 1 : Alligators, Palm Trees and Purple Gallinule.

A White Ibis searches for food at the edge of a parking lot in Boca Raton, Florida. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
After trudging around in the cold and snow all winter, it was nice to get away for a few days and explore south Florida. This was a great trip, from a birding perspective, because I not only managed to pick up a number of new life birds but also had a chance to see a number of species, such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Osprey, which I'm unlikely to see in New England for another couple of months.Over the 5 days I spent in Florida I had the opportunity to see some amazing wildlife, starting off with a trip to the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, where we had the opportunity to see a variety of sea turtle species up close, learn about the important conservation work going on at the center and check out some very cool spiders spinning enormous, elaborate webs, along the boardwalk.

A Green Sea Turtle swims in a large tank at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton Florida. This particular turtle was badly injured by a motor boat and was sent to the nature center for medical care. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

A Crab Spider sits patiently on its web along the boardwalk at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
Although we didn't see any birds as we walked along the boardwalk, we did hear a few calling from within the thick tangle of trees that surrounded the path.  There were also several Crab Spiders, such as the one in the photo above - truly intriguing creatures which at first glance really do resemble crabs. There was also a beautiful butterfly garden to explore and a nice variety of plant life to enjoy, from the Gumbo Limbo trees to Mangroves.

A lizard at the4 Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
An Atala butterfly perches on a plant in the butterfly garden at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
One of the most interesting animals we saw during our visit to Gumbo Limbo was an Atala butterfly (shown in the photo above). This butterfly was in serious trouble during the 1970's as the the species of plant they rely on for food was declining. Fortuately, through the dedicated work of conservationists, this butterfly has made something of a comeback in south Florida, the only place in the US where it can be seen in the wild.

The Florida Everglades are an amazing place to observe all kinds of wildlife, from Purple Gallinule to American Alligators. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
As we drove around this part of Florida we continually saw  a variety of birds along the sides of the highways, in little pockets of wetland and small ponds and in virtually every parking lot, including Cattle Egret, Double-Crested Cormorant, White Ibis and Common Gallinule. The skies overhead were also filled with vultures and practially everywhere we went there were large groups of Boat-tailed Grackles.

The next day we got a taste of the Florida Everglades on a air boat tour from the Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. Before embarking on our tour we had some time to watch the many Boat-tailed Grackles around the parking lot and the Turkey Vultures wheeling in the sky overhead.

A Boat-tailed Grackle perches on a railing outside the store at the Everglades Holiday Oark in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Image copyright Daniel E. levenson 2014. 

A Black Vulture sits close to the water's edge in the Everglades. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
This year I am trying to focus on improving my field ID skills, so it was great to have the chance to get a really good look at a group of Black Vultures in a tree and along the shore during our boat ride. I've had the opportunity in the past to get close to Turkey Vultures, but these Black Vultures were a new life bird for me and I was very happy to be able to see how different they really are from Turkey Vultures. I also had the chance to observe them in flight a few other times, often sharing a patch of sky with Turkey Vultures, which afforded me the opportunity to compare the differences in flight style, shape  and coloration, essentially side-by-side. Next to the Turkey Vultures the more compact tale and wing pattern of the Black Vultures were easy to see.

A Purple Gallinule comes out of the vegetation along the water in the Everglades. These colorful birds feed on insects they find in and around aquatic vegetation. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

In the next part of this two-part post I will share observations and photos from  an outing to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, where we had amazing, up-close views of an incredible variety of bird life, not to mention several American Alligators and a feral Iguana. Be sure to check back soon for part two of my Florida birding experience.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking back on 2013: 200 species of birds, from New England to Israel

Redheads in the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston, MA on New Year's Day, 2013. These were not only a new life bird for me, but an exciting find on a frigid winter day and a great way to start off my attempt at a 2013 big year. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As 2013 draws to a close I've been thinking a lot about the birding I've done over the past year, as I attempted to do my own version of "big year." I started out with the goal of seeing 300 species in Massachusetts, then shifted my geographic range to all of New England, since I knew I would be spending some time in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut as well. In the end I saw a total of 200 species for year, the vast majority in New England, but a good number in Israel as well. My final stats for the year were as follows:

Total species seen in New England: 179

Total species seen in Israel : 23 

Total species seen (or heard) for the year: 200

New life birds added for North America: 57 (I also managed to begin my year with a new life bird on New Year's day with a group of Redhead ducks and end the year with another new bird, a Snowy Owl seen in Rhode Island)

One of the best things about this project was that it gave me a chance to meet some really great people in the birding community, see new places and learn more about bird life and general ecology. I spent many winter hours walking along the edges of semi-frozen ponds, sweltering days fighting mosquitoes and dehydration in forests and wetlands and had a tremendous amount of fun doing it all.

At the Jerusalem Botanical Garden in Israel I cam across this Little Egret (a fairly common Eurasian bird closely resembling Snowy Egret) which  was a nice addition to both my 2013 year list and my life list.  Image copyright Daniel E.Levenson.
There were many great experiences and moments, but I think one of the best was defintiely participating in the Mass Audubon Bird-a-Thon as part of the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary team - with Strickland Wheelock as our expert coach we spent 24 hours scouring the outer cape where there were Whip-poor-wills to be heard calling in an old graveyard, Northern harriers hunting over dunes, a large breeding colony of Double-Crested Cormorants to be seen at the entrance of Provincetown harbor and a spectacular sunrise to watch at Pilgrim Heights. We also had very good luck when it comes to the numbers and diversity of warblers to be found. This was a fantastic birding experience and one I am looking forward to doing again this year.

During my 2013 New England big year I had a chance to visit many beautiful beaches and coastal areas, from Rhode Island to Maine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
In 2014 I plan to slow things down and focus much more on field observation and trying to sharpen my bird ID skills. Instead of checking e-bird reports constantly (a habit I alternately embraced and rejected several times throughout the course of this past year) I plan to focus on just getting outside wherever and whenever I can, with my binoculars and a notebook.  My goal is to keep detailed lists not only of the birds I see, but to gather as much data as I can, including notes on weather, bird behavior and breeding activity. Another thing I would like to do is make notes on field marks to help sharpen my ID skills, especially when it comes to sparrows, gulls, flycatchers and warblers. Wherever I go birding in the coming year this is going to be my approach - so I'll see where I end up birding and exploring, and of course I plan to share what I find, here on this blog.

So here's to a year of slow birding in 2014, and thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, December 13, 2013

December birding in Rhode Island brings my list to 200 species for the year

A group of birders scans the waves for Surf Scoters, harlequin Ducks and other visitors to the Rhode Island coast in winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Back in January I began a quest to complete my own version a birding big year, with a focus on Massachusetts. My original goal was to find 300 species of birds in Massachusetts, but over the course of 2013 my focus shifted a little, first to include all of New England. This was a really great project and I feel like it taught me a lot about bird ID, where to find birds, and gave me a glimpse into larger patterns of migration and the ways that birds interact with their environment. Although there are still two weeks left in the year and I may add another species or two to the list if I'm lucky, I have to say I'm pretty happy to have seen 179 species in New England, and another 21 species in Israel, for a total count of 200 species for the year.

During a recent outing to Rhode Island with Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, I added the most recent 5 species which brought my year list to 200, all of which also happened to be life birds, which was really exciting. During this outing I added a Purple Sandpiper feeding in the surf along a rocky outcropping, a Ruddy Turnstone along the beach, a beautfiul Snowy Owl perched atop a huge beach-side rock, a White-crowned Sparrow feeding in brush along a trail and several Black Scoters just off of the beaches near Newport. In the next two weeks I'm looking forward to getting out a little more, but for now I have to say I'm pretty happy to have reached 200 species for the year.

I'm looking forward to getting outdoors as often as I can in 2014, and hopefully exploring some new areas in New England other parts of the country.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, December 6, 2013

November birding in Israel

A large pond in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens offers birders an excellent place to watch for Little Egret and at least two species of Kingfisher. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Last month I had a chance to do a little birding in Jerusalem, a place which is not only rich with thousands of years of history and culture, but  a wonderful place to go see an incredible range of species passing through on their way to and from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean and other parts of the Middle East. Over the course of a few days I visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, the Wohl Rose Garden and the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, where I saw many interesting birds.

A Eurasian Jay searches for food along the edge of a stream at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory in Israel. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
At the Jerusalem Bird Observatory I spent several hours inside the hide watching Eurasian Jays, European Robins, White-spectacled Bulbuls, Palestine Sunbirds, Laughing Doves and other birds that I got to know fairly well when I lived in Jerusalem in 2009. I also had a chance to speak with some staff and volunteers at the observatory who were doing a bird banding demonstration, and were nice enough to let me know which birds watch out for in the area this time of year.While I saw many great birds at the observatory and in the Wohl Rose Garden across the street I have to admit I was slightly disappointed that I did not see a Bluethroat, a particularly striking bird that I have wanted to add to my life list for some time now. One surprising find were two House Crows, a species not native to Israel and more commonly found in India, but which has established a presence in the country.

Hooded Crows like the ones in the photo above are a common sight throughout the city of Jerusalem and can often be seen perched in trees and foraging for food in city parks. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I particularly enjoyed birding in the botanical gardens, with its winding paths that take visitors on a botanical tour of the world. It was here that I added 4 new species to my life list: Grey Wagtail, Little Egret, Sardinian Warbler and White-throated Kingfisher. I also had a lot of fun trying to get close to and photograph some of the lizards that were enjoying the late Autumn sunshine, basking on the rock walls that line the walking trails.
At the Jerusalem Botanical garden a  Little Egret stalks along a partially submerged cable, hunting for food. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

In total I added 23 species to my year list, and 10 to my life list, which was not bad considering I had limited time to go birding. I'm looking forward to returning soon and getting out into other parts of the country to look for dessert species in the south and hopefully to visit the Hula Valley, one of the best spots for birding on the planet.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Spotted Sandpiper along the Charles River is Bird #174 for the Year

Fall colors were on display along the Charles River in Newton and Waltham. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Over the past week I've managed to get out and do a little more birding by kayak on Lake Cohituate in Natick and the on the Charles River in Newton. Both times I've brought my camera along and on each outing I've been able to get quite close to a number of very striking birds, including a Black-Crowned Night Heron (found perched in the same place I saw one mentioned in my last post), several brightly-colored male Wood Ducks, an Osprey and  a Spotted Sandpiper.

A Painted Turtle sits on a half-submerged log on Lake Cochituate in Natick, enjoying the last few rays of summer sunshine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Paddling around Lake Cochituate I saw fewer birds than my previous trip, but there was still plenty to see, including the Painted Turtle in the photo above. There was also a raucous chorus of Blue Jays in the trees and many Mallards out on the water. The absence of the sound of Gray Catbirds was also noteworthy - perhaps they've already begun their migration.

A Spotted Sandpiper hunts for food along the muddy banks of the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
While paddling on the Charles River this past week I added a Spotted Sandpiper to my year list, bringing my total to 174 species. At this point it would be practically impossible to get my New England big year list up to 300 species, but I am hoping to hit at least 200 species for the year in New England, which should be an attainable goal if I get out this fall and early winter in search of Finches, Snowy Owls, etc. With one trip abroad planned before December 31 I's hoping to hit at least 210 for my personal year total. Either way it's been a fun project and down the road I would defintiely consider attempting another "big year," most likely within tighter parameters - i.e., only in Massachusetts or only for a month.

A Great Blue Heron sits perched on some branches along the Charles River in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I have to admit that as much as I've enjoyed being able to be out in the woods without wearing many layers of clothing that birding in the warm weather can be just as challenging as birding when it's cold outside. This is one of the wonderful things about New England - last March when I had taken just about all I could handle of blizzards, ice and freezing winds I was ready for warm nights, sunshine and a steady stream of Warblers and now that I've endured a summer full of biting insects, sunburn and dehydration I'm more than ready to throw on an extra layer or two and head out to look for wintering sea ducks, Snowy Owls and Finches. I suppose that just like the birds themselves that birders have seasonal patterns too.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fall Birding by Kayak Brings My Year List to 173 Species

A kayak is a wonderful tool for birding and photography, allowing birders to move quietly along wetlands, ponds and rivers without disturbing wildlife. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
It's been a busy summer, and while I have managed to get outdoors a decent amount, I've had practically no time to update this blog. Suffice it to say I added no new species in July or August, but recently I managed to get out on the Charles River in a kayak for a couple of hours and was delighted to not only add a Black-Crowned Night Heron to my year list, but to see many other species of birds as well, including many Wood Ducks, at least 5 Great Blue Herons, two rather noise Belted Kingfishers chattering loudly as they swooped down to grab small fish and then return again briefly to the dead branch of a tree stick up out of the water.

I heard many racuous American Crows and Blue Jays calling so I kept alert for signs of raptors-  I did see one hawk circling high overhead, likely a Red-tailed Hawk, but too far off for me to definitively ID without binoculars. The best find of the day, however, was definitely the Black-crowned Night Heron, a normally quite secretive species that I found perched at the edge of the river on the branches of a half-submerged tree. The heron was not skittish at all and as I drifted past I was able to get a photo with my phone before it took off.

A Black-crowned Night Heron perches in a branch sticking up out of the Charles River in Newton, Massdachusetts. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levebnson 2013

 I spent the rest of my time paddling into hidden pockets and back behind the edges of lilly pad fields, in search of more ducks and wading birds. It was nice to gert back out not only on the water but to do a little more serious birding than I've had the time to attempt this past sumnmer. Hopefully this Fall will bring more birding adventure, which I will of course write about here.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Danniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

An abundance of birds, despite the heat

A male Northern Cardinal pauses on a branch to survey the shrubbery around it. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

With seemingly endless heat and humidity battering New England for the last few weeks I haven't spent too much time out in the field exploring and birding. Today, however,I managed to get out to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts where with a little effort I managed to find a number of species which seemed undaunted by the intense summer weather. When the temperature rises many animals will minimize activity and seek out ways to keep themselves cool, and humans are no exception, so today I made sure to drink plenty of water, wore a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, and focused on moving more slowly. I focused on taking the time to examine promising little pockets of habitat where I though birds might be have gone to seek shade or look for food at this time of year. Although many birders prefer to look for shorebirds (or engage in other activities altogether) during the hottest part of the year, this is actually a great time for the birds themselves. Between the cover provided by thickening vegetation and the abundant supply of bugs, berries and seeds, the middle of summer is proabbly a pretty good time to be a songbird.

By mid-July fields and meadows throughout New England are often covered in thick vegetation, providing ideal habitat for a wide range of insects and bird species. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This afternoon I was lucky enough to stumble upon one really nice spot right at the intersection of the forest and meadow where I stopped to listed to a pair of Northern Cardinal calling and soon added ten more species my list for the day, including two Gray Catbirds which were quite loud and whiny as they attempted repeatedly to land in a tree the cardinals seemed to have claimed as their own. The tree in question was covered with berries, and as the cardinals chased off the interloping catbirds I watched as a Song Sparrow pulled a berry loose from a branch and attempted to eat it - unfortunately for this hapless bird the berry proved to be too big for its bill and the berry dropped from its grip and disappeared into the tall grass below. While standing in this same spot a Blue-Gray Gnatcather also showed up, moving frenetically from the very tip of one branch to another, searching for tiny insects, and a female Common Yellowthroat also arrived, hanging around long enough for me to get a really good look at the a species where the male is much more striking and easily recognized.

I finished up by exploring another meadow where the plants and grasses had shot up to head level, providing convenient cover as I scanned the open areas above the field, looking for additional birds. After a while the humidity and Deer Flies began to take their toll and I headed home, already thinking of fall migration and cooler days but eager not to let the hidden pleasures and surprises of summer birding slip away just yet.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.