During our four-plus-hour river cruise, Ben’s deep knowledge about all things Alabama was outshone only by his folksy charm. An environmental reporter for twenty years in this state, his wildlife conservation bona fides are deeply rooted and home grown.
As we moved from one swampy natural wonder to another, part speed boat thrill ride part trolling motor, Ben told us just how special and how diverse the Mobile-Tensaw watershed is.
It leads the US in average rainfall: 77 inches per year, 22 more than Seattle.
Its 450 species of freshwater fish lead all states, representing a third of all freshwater fish species in the US.
Ranging from the Appalachian foothills in the northern part of the state to Mobile Bay, it is easily #1 in aquatic diversity among states, with new species being discovered all the time.
Ben harvested nutty American Lotus seeds for us, and buds of not-yet-uncurled leaves we are told will cook down like mustard greens. We lucked into a Mayfly hatch, which attracted a mobbing mixed flock of some 30 Prothonotary and Yellow Warblers. We saw colorful insects, wildflowers, fish and many birds. Ben also showed us a honey tree, a hollow tree trunk whose opening was ringed with bees. Locals used to hunt for honey trees and cut one down as a group, with each family taking home some of the sweet cache.
Besides being an excellent boat captain, Ben is also a respected historian who personally discovered the burnt and scuttled wreckage of the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the US, the ‘Clotilda’, as he documents in “The Last Slave Ship.” He also produced “The Underwater Forest,” a documentary about a 60,000-year-old submerged Cypress forest discovered off the coast of Alabama in 2004, just after Hurricane Ivan.
Suffice it to say we felt fortunate to have him as our expert local guide for the day.
But it wasn’t just dumb luck that brought us to Ben’s boat. It was his wildlife conservation connection with “professor” and guide Andrew Haffenden, who finishes up teaching Shorebird School today.
An Australian native who moved to Alabama in 2012, Andrew was briefly internationally famous along with Ben in 2018. Drew, while performing nesting surveys for Alabama Audubon, discovered a horrifying spectacle that Ben wrote about on Alabama.com:
“Beachgoers playing volleyball on a small island at the mouth of Mobile Bay perpetrated a horrific crime in recent weeks, likely killing hundreds of tiny Least Terns.
The volleyballers even stacked dozens of eggs stolen from nests in a pile to bake in the sun.”
Laying their grape-sized eggs on scrapes in the sand in dense colonies, Least Terns spend most of their time trying to keep their eggs cool, Andrew said, standing above them to shade them, and periodically dunking their belly feathers to help with evapotranspirative cooling.
So when the volleyballers scooped up all the eggs and put them in a pile, the chicks might have had a higher survival rate if they’d just played among the nests. At least there might have been some shade. Because of onlookers and partiers, other nests not on the court also suffered, Andrew said, when parents weren’t able to get to their nests and tend them.
It became a “teachable moment,” for locals, especially after the story spread around the globe, migrating as far as China, Andrew said. Ever since word got out, beachgoers have been by and large very compliant with signs and string-and-stake “fences” volunteers erect to protect breeding birds.
Since moving to Alabama in 2012, Andrew has helped collect nesting data for Least Tern, Snowy Plover, American Oystercatcher and Black Skimmer. For more than 9 years he’s been recording banding data on Piping and Snowy Plovers. His data, combined with others,’ convinced Audubon to designate Dauphin Island an “Important Bird Area.”
Audubon already operated a sanctuary on Dauphin Island, which is actually an archipelago of barrier beach islands that is well-known as a “migrant trap” in the spring. The first land that birds see after taking off in the Yucatan, it often records 25-plus warbler species during spring migration.
But you don’t have to wait until next year to bird the Gulf Coast with Andrew. This year he’s leading our Louisiana Yellow Rails and Birding Festival Oct. 27 to Nov. 1, one of the only places you’ll have a chance of seeing up to 6 species of reclusive rails in one location. And that includes the Black Rail, a bird so rarely seen that some people say that it’s a myth!
Perks Include: Remote Locations, Outdoor Activities, Vaccine Requirements and No Overpriced Rental Cars!
As we emerge, vaccinated, from our COVID caves, stir-crazy has fused with FOMO (fear of missing out) to drive a serious uptick in demand for US travel and tourism.
In a classic case of pent-up demand, 77 percent of US travelers plan to take a trip in the next few months, according to tourism market researcher Destination Analysts, which has been conducting a large long term study of travel sentiment since March of 2020, when the pandemic struck. But international travel is still a no-go for some 56 percent of those surveyed, with just 10 fearless percent declaring this IS the year for bucket-list international travel.
But while travelers ponder international destinations, we, too, feel a strong sentiment in the direction of US travel and tourism, with our guests lining up for US trips with vaccine requirements. (We added vaccine requirements earlier this year for all trips, effective July 1, 2021.)
We have been gratified to sell out many US trips and continue to add several more in 2021, responding to the needs of travelers who are raring to get out there — just not TOO far out there.
Guided US Travel Has Its Benefits
The benefits are many to guided US nature and birding tours:
It’s a low-density activity in a remote outdoors location.
Vaccine requirements allow you to relax around your fellow travelers.
We’re now traveling in smaller vehicles rather than vans.
You don’t have to worry about renting a vehicle on your own, which has become significantly more pricey post-lockdown — and that is if you can find an affordable rental car!
Our recently added US birding and nature trips (with vaccine requirements) include:
Aug. 22-27, Shorebird School at Alabama’s Dauphin Island, which also includes a private boat tour of “Alabama’s Amazon,” the deeply biodiverse Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
November, TBA, Louisiana Yellow Rails and Rice, birding the rice harvest with guide Andrew Haffenden. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details — this one is so new we are still putting it together!
Dec. 4-10, give yourself the gift of California Birding Wine Country, in Lodi’s historic Wine and Roses Hotel, featuring some of the best cuisine in Central California. We bird premiere National Wildlife Refuges and sip wines in lush gardens and elegant tasting rooms.
Every year from around January through the end of March, Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park comes alive as water levels throughout the park drop and force birds to concentrate around more permanent water sources. Guide Carlos Sanchez takes us through this Florida spectacle.
Well known to tourists who visit the trail by the thousands every year to see their first wild alligators, the site is generally passed off by the serious birder as having little potential of seeing something truly special—just close views of herons, egrets, and ibis. I challenge that false notion and welcome those to visit Anhinga Trail in late winter and see one of the great wildlife spectacles of Florida.
A late winter dawn at Anhinga Trail is truly a feast for the
senses if one arrives under the cover of night and waits patiently for the sun
to rise. The air can either feel damp
and musky or cool and crisp, depending on the strength of cold fronts working
their way down the peninsula. Along the
trail, the barking duets of Barred Owl and whistled trills of Eastern
Screech-Owl slowly diminish and give way to the wailing rattles of Limpkin and
raspy notes of King Rail as sunrise draws closer. Suddenly, the entire trail
system comes alive as birds begin their day. Hundreds of both Glossy and White
Ibis commute overhead, along with Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue and
Tricolored Herons, and Black and Turkey Vultures. A flock of Red-winged
Blackbirds, over a thousand strong, fly overhead in several waves towards their
feeding grounds. Snail Kite may also be spotted leaving their roosts near this
trail during this time of year. While all these birds are commuting to their
feeding grounds, Black-crowned Night-Herons change shifts, barking out their
‘quoks’ as they head to their roosting areas.
On the ground, downy white Anhinga chicks beg for a meal of
fish from their parents only a few feet from the boardwalk, always nervous
Belted Kingfishers rattle and chase each other to establish who gets the best
fishing spots for the day, and gaudily colored Purple Gallinules furtively peck
at green tidbits in areas of thicker vegetation. If one listens carefully, one
can also hear the metallic chinks of wintering Northern Waterthrush and the
soft whinny of Sora.
Various smaller bird species which are not seen easily later
in the day also make an appearance at the break of dawn, and and as February
turns into March, their singing becomes more incessant and forms a significant
part in the wetland dawn chorus — White-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher,
Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinal.
By around 8 AM, I usually head back to my car not only because the bulk of the morning activity is over but also before the throngs of tourists take over, causing the birds to retreat further into the marsh. However, this brief burst of activity sets the tone for the rest of the birding day in the Everglades or southern Miami-Dade as how can one not be impressed by the sheer number and variety of wetland birds as a birder? The experience is also bittersweet, as I have often been told that Anhinga Trail used to be much better, that there used to be far more birds, and that such dawn spectacles are only a shadow of what they once were. Regardless, it is still freshwater wetland birding in Florida at its best.
Carlos Sanchez sits on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society, is a regular contributor to the birding blog 10,000 Birds, and leads local tours through his company, EcoAvian Tours. He has also been a resident guide at lodges in both Ecuador and Brazil.
North America is home to many amazing bird species, including several which require a special effort to see and appreciate. These avian treasures also invite one to sites that are unique within the United States—the climate, vegetation, and landscapes all add context and heighten the experience of seeing one’s first Elegant Trogon or Painted Bunting. So let’s look at this sampler, shall we?
ROSY-FINCHES Breeding only above tree line on windswept and desolate rock faces (or equally austere habitats on the Aleutians), the three American Rosy-Finches (Gray-crowned, Black, and Brown-capped) are extreme environment specialists that are endemic to North America. In the summer, they are the highest altitude breeding songbird in North America. Their nests often overlook snowfields in the highest mountains, gathering along the edges of melting snowbanks to feed on freshly uncovered seeds and insects. In autumn and winter, they descend these high ridges to avoid the worst of the high winds and blowing snow—sometimes to feeders such as Sandia Crest in New Mexico, where there is a long ongoing study on these fascinatingly tough avian treasures.
PAINTED BUNTING There are few birds in the world with such a dramatic combination of blue, green, and red colors as the Painted Bunting. In fact, its French name nonpareil means “without an equal,” and its Cuban name mariposa means butterfly. Only in their second fall do the males achieve their spectacular plumage. These colorful songbirds occur in two populations, a western one, which winters in Mexico and Central America and an eastern one, which winters in South Florida and Cuba. In winter, they occur in rank thickets and woodland edges where they feed mostly on seeds. Due to their beauty and warbling song, poachers trap these buntings in South Florida for an illegal local cage-bird trade.
ELEGANT TROGON Trogons and quetzals are an ancient, colorful bird family that occurs in forests and other wooded habitats from the American tropics to Africa to Southeast Asia. The word Trogon, from the Greek meaning “gnawer,” refers to their hooked, serrated bills used to eat large insects and fruit—as well as gnaw on the rotting wood of old woodpecker cavities to reuse as nesting sites. The exquisite Elegant Trogon, mostly a Mexican species of the Sierra Madre, is the only member of this tropical bird family to range north into Southeast Arizona – the only trogon species in the United States and often considered “the most sought after bird in Arizona.”
GREEN JAY Bright and sociable, Green Jays are a joy to watch as they move around wooded habitats in tight family flocks in search of large insects, seed, and fruit. Occurring primarily in two disjunct populations (one in Mexico and the other in the Andes), these jays are common residents in South Texas where they are steadily spreading northward. These birds are unusual in that parents retain non-breeding jays fledged from the previous year to help with territorial defense but do not assist as helpers-at-the-nest.
A few weeks ago we asked our guides what their spark bird was … and what fun was to read their responses. We sent out a newsletter to our clients so they could read about our guides’ spark birds and asked clients to send us theirs. What a fun response! Take a read below to learn about our guides’ spark birds and the spark birds that got our clients hooked on birding.
OUR GUIDES’ SPARK BIRDS
INDIGO BUNTING “My spark bird was an Indigo Bunting. I was in high school, working two days a week on an internship at a local nature center my senior year. I was engrossed in spring wildflowers and in working on pressing the latest discoveries when my friend burst in and says, you MUST come out and see this! She pointed up and my bins connected with this turquoise gem, throwing his head up in song from the pitched roof of our historic schoolhouse. I was convinced and have been birding avidly ever since.” — Peg Abbott
GREEN WOODPECKER “The (Eurasian) Green Woodpecker was probably the first that got me really hooked. I was on a school trip, aged 9 I think, to the county of Cheshire in mid England (UK) to a big stately home. There were big gardens, parkland with deer, well-groomed lawns. You’ve see those places in TV shows where the lords and ladies sip tea! Anyway, during the lunch break I sneaked off with a pal of mine to try to get close to the deer, we ignored the ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign and crossed a lawn.
Suddenly a green-coloured bird shot up from the grass, making loud alarm calls as it bounded away before landed again on the grass not on the trees. I had never seen one before but I knew what it was: Green Woodpecker; I looked it up later at home and read that it is ‘often terrestrial and eats ants.’ Wow, a woodpecker that spends most of its time on the ground. I was hooked.” — Gerard Gorman
CEDAR WAXWING “A single Cedar Waxwing.
For a young boy, growing up in the magical woodlands of Maryland, it began with a single waxwing.
Exploring forest next to home, my older brother Rob gathered a wealth of information and experience for his Boy Scout “Bird Merit Badge.” I was always one barefooted step behind him. With his quick keen eyes, and accurate directions, he revealed wondrous beauty to me.
Fresh morning air, slight humidity, spring 1969. Above, a canopy of mixed deciduous hardwoods, below, a lush and diverse under story, found us immersed in what we delighted in the most. DISCOVERY!
Suddenly, there before us, calmly perched, a single Cedar Waxwing. Confiding, exquisitely plumaged, well-tailored, regal. Through my astonished eyes I felt nothing could have been more beautiful. Beholding this gift, dappled in soft sunlight, I stood motionless, gazing at a creature that would have an immense impact upon my life, forever. It was unfathomable to me that anything so exotic existed outside of a book, a zoo, or a jungle, but there it was, gazing back through black mascara bordered by fawn blush.
I made its acquaintance realizing its every subtlety. The appointment of color, the adornment of “wax” droplets on the tips of the wing feathers and an expressive crest crowning the bird, held my undivided attention. From that point on I only wanted to see more.
And so it has been, for my entire life.” — Keith Hansen
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH “My spark bird was a Goldfinch. I was out running and a flock of breeding plumage American Goldfinch flew across my path, landing in a small tree. I thought, as many non-birders do, we have canaries in our area? That’s when I started looking at birds differently.” — Pat Lueders
EASTERN PHOEBE “Which bird got me hooked on birding? So hard to say, since nature drew me in at a very young age. I quickly learned to identify most of the common backyard birds one would find in South Florida from Anhinga to White Ibis. I did not “rediscover” birding until right after college, after walking to a local park and seeing an Eastern Phoebe perched on a fence. The thrill of seeing something I had studied in a book beforehand, researching and learning about it, then seeing it in the flesh—well, I was hooked again!” — Carlos Sanchez
YELLOW-THROATED VIREO “I had been birding (far beyond my general enthusiasm for the whole of the natural history world…) for just over a year with Jim, who had recently moved to the Central Coast of California. Jim got me into looking at birds, the smaller birds, you know, the ones way up at the tops of the trees. And with all the vagrant traps on our patch of the coast, we were having a blast finding all sort of migrants that fall, including an exceptional nice mix of vagrants.
Jim had invited a number of friends from the Central Valley to join us on the coast and bird some of our favorite vagrant hotspots on 3 October, 1981, the peak of fall migration. So early that morning we met Keith Hansen, his brother Rob, Dawn, Gary and others and started north from Morro Bay. Most all of us were in our twenties, and the energy was palpable.
And it was that energy that made it one of the most memorable days of birding for me. Along with hordes of western migrants, we had a sublime group of eastern vagrants at every stop that morning. But the bird of the day that gave us all a lot of “Green Valley grins” was that Yellow-throated Vireo at Pico Creek, just glistening in the bright, early morning sun…” — Greg Smith
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE “My spark bird, the bird that got me hooked on birding: Probably the Black-capped Chickadee. When I was a teenager my dad would take me hunting and I’d tag along, not so much for the hunting part but because I liked to be in the woods and spend time with my father. I remember one cold morning being in a tree stand waiting for a deer to walk by and being surrounded by silence and then …. chickadees. They were landing on branches all around me and even on the railing of the tree stand.
Since then I seem to have a magical connection with them. I’ve pished them in close many times, had them answer my chickadee call, and even had one land on my hand and try to pull a hair out of my knuckle. They are in New Jersey all winter and always bring a smile to my face when they land on my feeders.” — Rick Weiman
“Long ago, a Midwestern boy was assigned patrol duty at his elementary school. His crossing was the farthest one from the school in a peaceful area overhung by crabapple trees. One fall morning during a lull in crossing activity, he noticed birds moving through one of the Crabapple trees. Upon closer investigation, he saw a dozen gorgeous yellow and brown-cast birds with crested heads and brilliant red and yellow accents feeding on crabapples. The birds seemed tame.
Early the next morning, he rode his bike to his crossing and found several trees swarming with even more of these birds. He got to within ten feet of them as they feasted on crabapples. He stood transfixed for an hour.
After returning home, the boy searched through the family bird book and found the birds he had been seeing close up and by the dozen. They were Cedar Waxwing.
There was something intoxicating about all of this. Later in life, he discovered that because the birds were eating over-ripe crabapples, they were indeed intoxicated. This made them tame.
This boy has been watching and studying birds ever since. As you may have guessed by now, this boy was me.” — Woody Wheeler
OUR CLIENTS’ SPARK BIRDS
We’ve kept our clients’ spark bird stories anonymous for their privacy.
AMERICAN REDSTART “The spark bird for me was a disaster. I was in my pre-teens and living in Chicago in the old community of Pullman and had ridden my bike to what was known as the dump. It was actually an industrial land fill in the wetlands and prairie areas near Lake Calumet on Chicago’s far south side. While wandering about I spied a bird on the shore of a small pond. So I did what kids do, I threw stone at it. I hit it. And killed it. I was devastated and fascinated by the beautiful animal I had destroyed. It was either a Mourning Dove or Killdeer. I can’t recall. But I never threw another stone at another bird. My deed haunted me.
But then an epiphany occurred for me. A few years later while working on a landscaping project in a well-tended yard in a well-tended residential neighborhood the world of birds opened up for me in the flash of a Redstart darting amongst shrubbery right in front of my nose. WOW. What was that. Where can I find a book? Holy cow, I wanted more. I was hooked. But it sure was an odd situation being the only birder in a 1950s big city blue collar high school.”
NIGHT HERON “When I was in grad school at UNC, my boyfriend taught me about birding. I wasn’t hooked yet though. I couldn’t even tell you the first birds I observed. But then we took the long drive to the Everglades. At the first pond, there was an immature night heron. After identifying it on my own (with a field guide of course!), I was hooked. I mean, really … that red eye!”
RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD “I guide here in the DC area and my spark bird is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I was the gardener at our school and I wanted them to come over the roof of the school and into the courtyard. I planted Bee Balm in a large 4×4 bed, then set a feeder with fresh sugar water in a red-colored dish-like feeder. I kept it clean. They came early much to my joy and I got a video of the bird scaffolding from the Beech tree to the feeder. I set up a presentation in power point for the after-school kids and talked about how scientists found out how they fly.
We still don’t know how they hover. Physics students from UC Davis were having a break on the patio at the school when they saw some Hummingbirds and wanted to know the physics of their flight. They made an experiment and they filmed it. The middle schoolers were fascinated. They were happy to see that we had hummingbirds coming to the school. It was a treat. I will always be surprised by these tiny but mighty birds.”
PILEATED WOODPECKER “My ‘spark’ to birding (never heard that one before) was many years ago, as a young teenager, early 1970s, when an older family friend, in upstate New York … who knew Roger Tory Peterson (too bad I never met him!) took me out for birding in the summer, Catskills, wee hours … and my first Pileated Woodpecker, so spectacularly beautiful, that was it, I was hooked … birding ever since, in a fun way, even now easy to do in Virginia, without any crowds!”
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER “I grew up with a father who was an avid amateur ornithologist so (by osmosis?) I was pretty familiar with common birds of Massachusetts and was accustomed to noticing birds even though I was hardly a birder. In my early 40s I was sitting on our deck in the mountains of North Carolina with my leg propped up as I recovered from minor surgery. I noticed a small active bird in the shrubbery in front of me.
With nothing better to do I went and got binoculars and eventually identified the bird as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I was quite surprised that I had never even heard of this bird, let alone seen one before. Right there in my yard was a bird that was new to me! That got me wondering what else might be around and things took off from that.”
BALTIMORE ORIOLE “My father was a birder. It didn’t catch on with me right away (I was really into snakes earlier). Then in the spring of 1953 a pair of Baltimore Orioles built a nest in the willow tree in our backyard. I had seen pictures of them but never expected to see them in person. After all, they were Baltimore Orioles, and we lived in Massachusetts. I was thrilled to have such colorful birds nesting in our backyard. From then on I started looking through field guides, and I was hooked!”
BALD EAGLE “When I was in college, I was home for Christmas break. I was invited by a family friend to attend the Christmas Bird Count in Butte County, California. I had never been particularly interested in birds but I thought, what the heck, I didn’t have anything better to do. I figured I would just go for half a day. However, I couldn’t believe how fun it was and loved the whole day.
A couple of days later, I got to go birdwatching again with the trip leader, Eleanor Pugh, who was a pretty renowned California birder. We went to the Oroville Forebay, and she spotted a raptor in a tree and set up her scope. She looked through it and said, ‘I’ll let you all look at the bird and see if you can figure it out.’ Lo and behold, it was a mature Bald Eagle. We all got a great look at it, and then it took off and flew right over our heads.
This was a transformational experience for me. Not only did I become a lifelong birder, but I suddenly knew I cared deeply about the environment. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew I wanted to make a difference. I became a land use planner and helped implement the Coastal Act in Sonoma County.”
RED-SHOULDERED HAWK “A Red-shouldered Hawk—seen on a vacation to Florida in 1993, in a state park in the center of the state. It was at face height, about 15 feet away, observing me and not afraid. So beautiful. I had no idea what it was. After the trip I asked a client of mine who birded with her husband, what it might have been. From her suggestions, the Red-shouldered Hawk was the right bird.
I told my husband, I really liked looking at birds, and I want to keep doing it. We found the Audubon Society online, and by good fortune, the San Fernando Valley chapter was very active with 10 field trips every month. We started coming on the field trips, standing next to someone with more experience, and in a few months we were totally into birding. My husband at first felt that it was going to be an activity for old ladies, but when he came to a field trip, he saw it was about 50% men, and they were typically competitive like men in most sports. BTW, we were both in our early 50s already.”
CEDAR WAXWING “So, what is it about Cedar Waxwings? Two guides said they were their spark bird, and I smiled when I read that, because they were my spark bird at a very young age. Whole flocks of them used to descend on the toyon bushes of our Southern California house. They were magnificent, albeit a little reckless if they ate berries that had fermented on the bushes!”
WOOD DUCK “My spark bird was a Wood Duck. I was running past a small pond in the Berkshire in Massachusetts when I noticed a family. That was it—I was off and traveling the world.”
SCARLET TANAGER “Seen from our boat on the dappled creek shore was a bird that caught my attention. It was a gorgeous deep red, with jet black wings. Searching my memory banks for its identification was no help so soon thereafter I bought a field guide. The first of many, many, many books and a now 30 year avocation feeding, watching, traveling, and learning about birds.”
Read on for 7 highlights from Naturalist Journeys‘ Colorado birding tour and a letter from Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine.
Bird & Nature Lovers.
What a spring it has been—the strangest and most unsettling of my life, and perhaps yours too. Last month, I had plans to be at the Medano–Zapata Ranch. Mid-March is a magical time of year at the ranch, when the long winter is finally coming to an end. It’s when Sandhill Cranes fill the skies, when Mountain Bluebirds pause on every fencepost; when Cinnamon Teals and rare Mexican Ducks poke about the cold, clear waters of the region; when Sagebrush Sparrows and Sage Thrashers proclaim from the rabbitbrush and greasewood; and when Long-eared Owls sing their spooky songs from the quiet woods just beyond the ranch headquarters.
I didn’t get to experience any of that this year, but I know
it’s happening right now—and I long to get back to “The Valley,” as it is
simply known. The San Luis Valley, straddling the Colorado–New Mexico border,
is immense, the size of the state of New Jersey. It is a land of superlatives,
of 14,000–ft. summits, but also of vast wetlands and endless desert. And it is,
strangely and unjustly, unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Even many
Coloradans are only dimly aware of its existence.
At this writing, it’s impossible for me—it’s impossible for
anybody—to say when The Valley will be open again for the business of nature
tourism. I sure hope it’s sometime this summer, and that’s because my favorite
time of year in The Valley—sorry, March—is the summer. The cranes are gone by
then, but everything else is there: the bluebirds and teals and owls and so
much more: gloriously green Lewis’s Woodpeckers…enchanting Snowy
Plovers…busybody flocks of White-faced Ibises…Black Swifts blasting out of
waterfalls… And a fantastic diversity of butterflies, beetles, and other
The folks at Naturalist Journeys and the Medano–Zapata Ranch, acting out of both caution and practicality, have decided to reschedule our Colorado birding tour for June 13 – 20, 2021. The Valley is wonderfully alive at that time of year, with breeding bird activity at a peak, the days not too hot, and the evenings pleasantly cool. We are already in touch with the various experts who will join us in the field for special visits to private and restricted sites.
I’m disappointed that we won’t be spending time together this year, but I can say that I’m already excited about the prospect of doing so in the year following. I’m so looking forward to learning and exploring together with all of you! In the meantime, feel free to reach out to me with questions about observing and enjoying nature in The Valley. Email is best; you may contact me at email@example.com. For questions about logistics and scheduling for our Colorado birding tour, be in touch with Naturalist Journeys. We’ll be seeing you—sooner or later!
1. Visiting the rugged, isolated, and beautiful John James Canyon is always a treat on our Colorado birding tour. Birds of rocky country like Black-throated Sparrow and Rock Wren can be found throughout the basalt hillsides, as well as two rare species of butterflies, rattlesnake, and the hearty Pronghorn.
2. No trip to the ranch is complete without a visit to Zapata Falls. Hidden inside a great rock chamber lies the roaring 25-foot waterfall, where we witness swifts bursting through the water at dawn. The parking lot offers a sweeping view of the entire San Luis Valley and the short walk to the falls is a riot of sound and color with tanagers, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and warblers.
3. Blanca wetlands is a key stopover for migrating water birds and a visit to the wetlands offers wonderful close-up opportunities to see American Avocet, Snowy Plovers, and others. Here, we have the special opportunity to hear from local biologists about all of the great work they are doing.
4. For dashing western raptors like Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle, a trip to Hell’s Gate formation is not to be missed on our Colorado birding tour. We usually spot Bighorn Sheep here (in fact, we’ve actually never missed them)!
5. Those hungry for more adventure can lace up their boots and join the ranch crew to explore areas of The Nature Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch, accessible only by horseback. Atop sure-footed ranch horses, we travel through cool grassy meadows teeming with life and down dusty gulches checkered with Coyote dens.
6. Far from typical ranch fare, the food alone is worth the trip. A bounty of fresh local produce, ranch-raised meats, home baked breads, and heavenly desserts are thoughtfully prepared each day by the ranch’s excellent dining staff. While we take our lunch to-go, breakfast and dinner are a feast in the lodge’s great dining room, surrounded by panoramic windows. From our morning coffee to our evening cocktail, we admire browsing Mule Deer and follow the sun as it rises over the Sangre de Cristos and sets over the San Juan range.
7. Of course, the ranch itself is the main attraction! With Great Sand Dunes National Park as our backdrop, it is magical walking out among the rabbitbrush and greasewood and see and hear specially adapted birds like Sagebrush Sparrow and Sage Thrasher, or to witness the ranch’s wild Bison herd and their spring calves as they wallow and bellow in the summer sun. Making the sprawling, magnificent ranch our home for the week is certainly the cherry on top of our unforgettable Colorado birding tour.
The malaise we all feel trying to get through this pandemic reminds me a bit of jet-lag, that sort of fog that takes over when your energies are low and your internal clock is off. Therefore, it’s at times like these that I like numbers, being a person of many WORDS, work with numbers soothes me. After a few long plane rides back from Africa and Australia, I came up with what I call, the “Geometry of Birding”.
I was never very good with math, but always good with spatial relations. In high school when they tested us for careers, they tagged me as interior design. Hah! A little gender biased I think. However, today I use those spatial skills on beaks, wings, tails, and relative bird proportions.
Size is one of the most unreliable references to use for identification, of all the field marks, as it is so dependent on distance and relationship to other objects. We’ve all had that raptor on a pole turn into a robin, and vice-versa. But relative size is a good one.
I often use geometry often in two ways.
Relative Size is good for birds in flocks, or birds that aggregate in the same feeding area. Probably best described with shorebirds, the technique is to pick out a species you know well, and use it as the measure for all others. Trying to figure out that Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs? If a Killdeer is near, voila. Lesser Yellowlegs (10.5”) Greater (14″), Killdeer (10.5″). Using relative size in concert with a check of other field characteristics gives you confidence you made the right call. And finds you some sleepers! Ever see a dowitcher that seemed really small? While this measure does not sort Short-billed from Long-billed, only a half inch apart at 11” and 11.5”, that Stilt Sandpiper (8.5”) making the same feeding motion may be parked nearby! Now if there was a Sanderling nearby, a common companion, at 8” there is your match!
So now the fun begins. If you like Excel, make a chart with bird names and the height measurement (right under the name in most field guides), then sort by size and you have your chart. You can also do this by hand, making columns of 5” species, 6” species, 7” species, all the way up to the giants such as that 23” Long-billed Curlew. And you can take it across groups of birds. Perhaps a Common Raven (24”) landed on the mudflat nearby where you wondered if you had a Long-billed Curlew (23”) or Whimbrel (17.5). Bingo—no limit to sorting birds by size. Most handy is to start with those you commonly see at home. Have a big trip planned with a lot of new species? Have fun with the math and grouping them by size; it will REALLY pay off in the field.
Relative Proportion is a learned skill but one that is incredibly useful. We have master bird banders to thank for showing us the utility of comparing body parts and bringing that to field guides. Many know for flycatchers to look at the wing length to tail—at rest where do those wings hit the tail? Some also use primary projection, comparing different parts of the wing to each other. If this sounds way out of reach, start simple. I focus in on the beak right off when I see a bird. The shape and the length and proportion. The simplest question is: If you imagined placing the beak over the head, would it cover half, ¾, or full, perhaps even extend beyond it?
Look up Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker and you will understand the concept. This works well for some of the cryptic warblers, too, and their vireo look-alikes. Compare a Chipping with a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. The, from beaks I often use tails, especially in sparrows. Imagine putting that tail over the birds back. A Song Sparrow is a pretty good fit, whereas Savannah makes it only midway.
With just your field guide and your imagination, you can sleuth out many species if seen alone, by using its own body parts compared in relative proportion. Check out Bird Topography online as various sites, including Birdforum.net.
Naturalist Journeys is pleased to return to the beloved Texas Hill Country again this spring, with senior guide Pat Lueders. This Texas Hill Country birding tour really does have it all. Here are our top 5 reasons to join us.
The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only species of bird that nests only in the state of Texas—amazing, right? On our 2019 Texas Hill Country birding trip, the group had several successful encounters with the Golden-cheeked Warbler.
At the Frio Bat Cave, witness anywhere between 1-10 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats soar into the sky at sunset! An incredible site, this is the second largest bat population open to the public in the world.
The Black-capped Vireo is a vulnerable bird species and has an estimated population of only 20,000. The group that went on our Texas Hill Country birding trip last year got fantastic looks, right on the grounds at Neal’s lodge.
4. Stunning Butterflies
When visiting the Lost Maples Nature Area on our Texas Hill Country birding tour, the kaleidoscope of butterflies that can be seen is magical—over 140 species have been spotted here. From previous Texas Hill Country birding trips, Nysa Roadside-Skipper, Red Admiral, Gulf Fritillary, and Pipevine, Spicebush, and Giant Swallowtail have flourished in numbers.
This small kingfisher, with a disproportionately long bill, can be spotted on this Texas Hill Country birding tour and Texas is one of the only hotspots it can be seen in the US.
Bonus: Stay at Neal’s Lodge–Unpack and Relax
Neal’s Lodge, located in Concan, Texas, is our comfortable accommodation for the week. Neal’s grounds host birds from the Eastern and Western U.S., as well as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This area has been a bucket list destination for naturalists for decades!
If you opt to pair this Texas Hill Country tour with our Texas Big Bend tour, we’ll reimburse your connecting flight up to $100.
In April of 2019, Naturalist Journeys returned to the south Texas coast for a fun week during spring migration. On this Texas migration tour, our group of 10, plus guides Bob Behrstock and Robert Gallardo tallied an impressive 23 species of warblers! What fun.
Black-throated Green Warbler A bold black throat, this showy warbler, though not very green, is known for its ceaseless buzzy song. We listen for this beauty on our Texas migration trip.
Blackburnian Warbler Oh-so bright and beautiful, you won’t forget your first sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler on our Texas migration trip.
Cerulean Warbler Aptly named, the Cerulean is another treetop denizen, flashing its sky blue head. The Cerulean flies from the Andes to get to its US nesting territory.
Chestnut-sided Warbler This jaunty little warbler looks quite handsome with its golden cap, black mask, and chestnut sides.
Common Yellowthroat So, so bold and beautiful, the Common Yellowthroat’s markings are always a favorite. That black racoon mask is just so vivid.
Golden-winged Warbler Another black masked beauty, this mostly grey warbler’s sunny yellow shoulders and cap make it stand out.
Hooded Warbler We’re suckers for the Hooded Warbler. It’s bright yellow body is offset by greenish-gray tinged wings. And the black hood … swoon! Watch for flicks of white tail feathers in the understory.
Kentucky Warbler Another bright and sunny warbler, its yellow belly and throat can’t be missed. The Kentucky Warbler is loud and much easier to hear than see.
Magnolia Warbler One of our favorites, by name and by markings, the drama of gray, black, yellow, and white make the Magnolia a stunner. Watch for them feeding at the very ends of branches.
Northern Parula Almost a seal-blue on top with a burnt orange necklace, the Northern Parula’s breeding range interestingly skips a large swatch of the upper Midwest before starting back up again in Canada.
Northern Waterthrush Big and not brightly patterned, it’s the Northern Waterthrush’s song that’s so attractive. Look for them at water’s edge as they hunt insects and sometimes even salamanders. Not your typical warbler!
Ovenbird Also not a bright warbler, the Ovenbird does have a boldly striped chest and belly. Why “Ovenbird”? Their name comes from the covered nest the female builds.
Pine Warbler Almost never seen in any tree but a pine (what else), the Pine Warbler makes us work as it works the tops of the trees.
Prairie Warbler A chestnut-colored triangular patch at the nape of the neck and streaky belly help with ID. Fun Fact: The female Prairie Warbler eats her eggshells after they hatch. Crunch.
Prothonotary Warbler Everybody loves a Prothonotary Warbler. Their full yellow head and gray back end are a giveaway, and they are a flash of bright as they work the understory.
Swainson’s Warbler This one boasts quite the belly! Brown and basic, it’s range doesn’t reach usually reach past the Mason-Dixon line.
Tennessee Warbler The Tennessee is a small warbler and is happiest breeding in the boreal forests of Canada. Their favorite food? Spruce budworm.
Yellow Warbler Brilliantly bright yellow with gentle vertical stripes, the Yellow Warbler can be seen throughout the United States and up into Canada and Alaska during breeding season.
Yellow-throated Warbler Lucky for birders the Yellow-throated’s throat is bright! They like to hang out at the top of the canopy, so we look for flits of yellow on this Texas migration trip.
We’ve described each species’ male in breeding plumage.
Look no further than the breathtaking mountains on this Southeast Arizona birding tour for a New Year getaway—so good we have two trips in January with popular guide, Bob Meinke.
A January Southeast Arizona birding tour is a fascinating experience. Enjoy warmer weather (fingers crossed!) and the fascinating birds and wildlife of the Arizona Sky Islands.
Highlights from our Southeast Arizona Birding Tour
We enjoy plenty of opportunities to marvel at many wintering species of warblers, raptors, and sparrows, as well as tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes that call Southeast Arizona home for the winter. See Vesper, Grasshopper, and Baird’s Sparrows, as well as Horned Lark, and possibly Longspurs as they enjoy these productive wintering grounds. Raptors are also a highlight in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
There are an abundance of trails for exploring paired with gazing views of the sky islands in the sea of desert. Popular hotspots like Ramsey and Miller Canyons, Ash Canyon, and the San Pedro River are on the agenda for those keen. Choose to do as much or as little as you like—simple!
5 of Our Favorite Birds on this Southeast Arizona Birding Tour
The Montezuma Quail is super interesting in its behavior! It will wait till the very last minute when it feels threatened, and bursts into flight if danger comes too close for comfort! It can leap around 2 meters straight up, even with clipped wings!
The Sandhill Cranes that winter here number in the tens of thousands. We watch them as they feed in ponds and fields during the day. We make special time to see them fly into roost for the night—a real spectacle!
Our tour is based out of the lovely Casa de San Pedro, our favorite, most comfy place to stay for a Southeast Arizona birding tour. Grab yourself a slice (or 2!) of the famous homemade pie.