Category Archives: Mainland USA

Wildlife experiences: Anhinga Trail at Dawn

Anhinga by Carlos Sanchez
Anhinga by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Great Egret by Carlos Sanchez
Great Egret by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Barred Owl by Carlos Sanchez
Barred Owl by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Purple Gallinule by Carlos Sanchez
Purple Gallinule by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Roseate Spoonbill by Carlos Sanchez
Roseate Spoonbill by Carlos Sanchez

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.

If you would like to make a trip to southern Florida in search of Caribbean specialties, exotics, or visit the Everglades, please consider our Naturalist Journeys tour in January 2021: South Florida: Everglades & More!

American Crocodile by Carlos Sanchez
American Crocodile by Carlos Sanchez

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.

some of America’s avian treasures

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-finch
Rosy-finch, Naturalist Journeys stock photo

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.

See Rosy-Finches and more avian treasures on our New Mexico Nature & Culture Naturalist Journeys tour.

Painted Bunting by Carlos J Sanchez
Painted Bunting by Carlos J Sanchez

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.

See Painted Bunting and more avian treasures on our South Florida: Everglades & More Naturalist Journeys tour.

Elegant Trogon by Homer Gardin
Elegant Trogon by Homer Gardin

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.”

See an Elegant Trogon and more avian treasures on our Southeast Arizona Sky Island Spring Sampler Naturalist Journeys tour.

Green Jay by Delsa Anderl
Green Jay by Delsa Anderl

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.

See Green Jays and more avian treasures on our South Texas Birding & Nature Naturalist Journeys tour.

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to offer birding and nature tours to all seven continents. Start planning your next adventure.

www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146 | travel@naturalistjourneys.com

What Was Your Spark Bird?

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, spark bird, Naturalist Journeys
Indigo Bunting by Doug Greenburg

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Green Woodpecker by Pieter Verheij Photography

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

Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys, Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing by Steve Buckingham

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
American Goldfinch by Michael Murphy, courtesy Unsplash

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Eastern Phoebe by Hugh Simmons Photography

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Yellow-throated Vireo by 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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Black-capped Chickadee by Doug Greenburg

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

Cedar Waxwing, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Cedar Waxwing by John Duncan, courtesy Unsplash

CEDAR WAXWING
Woody describes his first spark bird in his blog post on Conservation Catalyst

“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 by Doug Greenberg

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.”

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Black-crowned Night-Heron by Sandy Sorkin

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Peg Abbott

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Pileated Woodpecker, courtesy Unsplash

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by Doug Greenburg

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Baltimore Oriole by Doug Greenburg

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!”

Immature Bald Eagle, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Immature Bald Eagle by Bob Hill

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Red-shouldered Hawks by Sandy Sorkin

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Cedar Waxwings by Gary Bendig, courtesy Unsplash

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Wood Duck by Doug Greenburg

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, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Scarlet Tanager by Doug Greenburg

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.”

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to offer birding and nature tours to all seven continents. Start planning your next adventure.

www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146 | travel@naturalistjourneys.com

7 Highlights of our Colorado Birding Tour to zapata ranch

Long-eared Owl by Greg Smith

Read on for 7 highlights from Naturalist Journeys‘ Colorado birding tour and a letter from Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine.

Hello, 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.

Mountain Bluebird by Hugh Simmons Photography

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 arthropods.

Lewis’s Woodpecker by Steve Wolfe

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 tfloyd@aba.org. 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!

Sincerely yours,

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine

THE NATURE CONSERVANCY’S ZAPATA RANCH: 7 HIGHLIGHTS YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS ON OUR COLORADO BIRDING TOUR

colorado birding tour
Rock Wren by Sandy Sorkin

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.

colorado birding tour
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies banding a Black Swift by Madeline Jorden

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.

colorado birding tour
Snowy Plover by Greg Smith

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.

colorado birding tour
Golden Eagle by Greg Smith

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)!

Colorado birding tour
Wranglers on the ranch by Matt Delorme

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.

Dinner at the ranch by Madeline Jorden

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.

Wild Bison pasture on the Zapata Ranch by Chris Haag

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. 

Take a look at some of our recent blog posts!

The Geometry of Birding

Learn all about the geometry of birding from Naturalist Journeys‘ owner and lead guide, Peg Abbott.

Geometry of Birding
Lesser & Greater Yellowlegs by Hugh Simmons Photography

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. 

Long-billed Dowitchers by Terry Peterson

RELATIVE SIZE

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!  

Sanderling by Greg Smith

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. 

Long-billed Curlew by Steve Wolfe

RELATIVE PROPORTION

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?

Geometry of Birding
Hairy Woodpecker by Peg Abbott, Downy Woodpecker by Bob Hill

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. 

Rufous-crowned Sparrow by Steve Wolfe, Chipping Sparrow by Sandy Sorkin

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

Just a few tips on the geometry of birding! 

Get in touch!

travel@naturalistjourneys.com | www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146

5 reasons to join our Texas Hill Country Birding tour

Texas Hill Country
Golden-cheeked Warbler by Tom Dove

The endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler is a must-see on this Texas Hill Country Birding tour.

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.

1. Endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler

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.

2. Mexican Free-tailed Bat

Texas Hill Country
Mexican Free-tailed Bats by Pat Lueders

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.

3. Black-capped Vireo

Texas Hill Country
Black-capped Vireo by Tom Dove

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

Texas Hill Country
Pipevine Swallowtail by Terry Peterson
Texas Hill Country
Gulf Fritillary by Terry Peterson
Texas Hill Country
Giant Swallowtail by Terry Peterson

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.

5. Green Kingfisher hotspot

Texas Hill Country
Green Kingfisher by Tom Dove

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!

Special Offer!

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.

Naturalist Journeys’ guide Pat Lueders leads our Texas Hill Country birding trip again this year. Find all the details for our Texas Hill Country trip, April 17 – 22, 2020 here. Priced at $2090 per person, based on double occupancy.
Read the full itinerary here.

REGISTER FOR THIS TRIP

23 Species of Warblers on our Texas Migration Tour

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. 

Texas Migration Tour
Birding Jones Forest, Naturalist Journeys Stock

You can join us this April for another Texas migration tour, this year with guide James P. Smith. 

Take a look at the 23 Warbler species seen on our 2019 Texas Migration tour.

Texas Migration Tour
American Redstart by Dan Pancamo

American Redstart  This darling little bird is always a fan favorite on our Texas migration trip. Busy, busy we look for the male’s bursts of orange as it flits from branch to branch.

Texas Migration Tour
Bay-breasted Warbler by Tom Dove

Bay-breasted Warbler 
A rich brown and cream in the spring, don’t let the Bay-breasted fool you outside of breeding season … it changes drastically to green and white.

Texas Migration Tour
Black-and-white Warbler by Doug Greenberg

Black-and-white Warbler
Dramatic and bright, the beautiful Black-and-white Warbler lives up to its name. This is one of the first migrants to arrive back in the US. 

Texas Migration Tour
Blue-throated Blue Warbler by Tom Dove

Black-throated Blue Warbler 
Rare to see in Texas, it was a treat for our group last year to see this black-masked warbler.

Texas Migration Tour
Black-throated Green Warbler by Ruth Guillemette

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Blackburnian Warbler by Tom Dove

Blackburnian Warbler
Oh-so bright and beautiful, you won’t forget your first sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler on our Texas migration trip.

Texas Migration Tour
Cerulean Warbler by Tom Dove

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Chestnut-sided Warbler by Doug Pratt

Chestnut-sided Warbler 
This jaunty little warbler looks quite handsome with its golden cap, black mask, and chestnut sides.

Texas Migration Tour
Common Yellowthroat by Peg Abbott

Common Yellowthroat 
So, so bold and beautiful, the Common Yellowthroat’s markings are always a favorite. That black racoon mask is just so vivid.

Texas Migration Tour
Golden-winged Warbler by Tom Dove

Golden-winged Warbler 
Another black masked beauty, this mostly grey warbler’s sunny yellow shoulders and cap make it stand out. 

Texas Migration Tour
Hooded Warbler, Naturalist Journeys Stock

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Kentucky Warbler by Andrew Weitzel

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Magnolia Warbler by Doug Greenberg

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Northern Parula by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Northern Waterthrush by Andrew Weitzel

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!

Texas Migration Tour
Ovenbird by Fyn Kynd

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Pine Warbler by Bob Hill

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Prairie Warbler by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Prothonotary Warbler by Ruth Guillemette

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Swainson’s Warbler by Andrew Cannizzaro

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. 

Texas Migration Tour
Tennessee Warbler by Brian Plunkett

Tennessee Warbler 
The Tennessee is a small warbler and is happiest breeding in the boreal forests of Canada. Their favorite food? Spruce budworm.

Texas Migration Tour
Yellow Warbler by Doug Greenberg

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.

Texas Migration Tour
Yellow-throated Warbler by Carlos Sanchez

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.

Naturalist Journeys’ guide James P. Smith leads our Texas migration trip to the Big Thicket and High Island this year. Find all the details for our Texas Coast & Big Thicket trip, April 23 – May 1, 2020 here. Priced at $2390 per person, based on double occupancy.

REGISTER FOR THIS TRIP

Read the full itinerary here.

Explore the Sky Islands on our winter Southeast Arizona Birding Tour

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

Montezuma Quail

  • 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!

Vermilion FlycatcherSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • A unique flycatcher in the sense that it spends most of the time (around 90%) perching conspicuously, making moves mostly to catch its prey! A must-see bird in the Southwest area of the United States!

Broad-billed HummingbirdSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • The  Broad-billed Hummingbird cannot walk or hop just like other hummingbirds, but can definitely dance! It shows a courtship display by hovering in repeated arcs, roughly 12 inches above the female!

Olive WarblerSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • The Olive Warbler loves open pine forests and the mountains – perfect for this tour! Male Olive Warblers take around 2 years to establish the orange hood of an adult!

Painted RedstartSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • An interesting tactic that the Redstart uses to gather its meal – flashing its white wing patches and outer tail feathers as an element of surprise!

Read more about Arizona’s signature birds on a past blog post.

Southeast Arizona Birding Tour Bonus Bird: Sandhill Crane

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! 

Hotel Highlight

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.

Ready to Join Our Southeast Arizona birding tour?

Naturalist Journeys’ 2020 Southeast Arizona birding tours run January 4 – 10 and January 11 – 17. The guide for both tours is Bob Meinke. Prices start from $2590; airport is Tucson International (TUS). Email us today at travel@naturalistjourneys.com to reserve your space on one of these Southeast Arizona birding tours.

Photo Credits:

Sandhill Cranes, Hugh Simmons (HUSI); Montezuma Quail, Mary Mcsparen (MAMC); Vermilion Flycatcher, Woody Wheeler (WOWE); Broad-billed Hummingbird, HUSI; Olive Warbler, Peg Abbott (PEAB); Painted Redstart, HUSI.

Arizona’s Signature Birds

Finding Arizona’s Signature Birds 

By Peg Abbott, Dodie Logue & Lynn Tennefoss, Portal, AZ

Arizona's Signature Birds
Portal, Arizona by Peg Abbott

Southeast Arizona in the spring is a birder’s paradise. Mexican species flow across the border in April and May to court and nest in the stunning, mountainous sky islands, lush riparian zones, and remnant grasslands of Southeast Arizona, alongside resident species not seen further north. Complementing Arizona’s signature birds are lovely weather, nationally acclaimed lodges, and delicious food!

To help birders focus on specialty species of the area, Naturalist Journeys has recently updated a popular handout listing the 25 signature species by habitat, targeted by birders visiting the region. Additionally, a dozen more species seen a bit more broadly in Arizona and Texas and five highly-prized (though infrequent) specialties are listed along with five widely-recognized sub-species seen in the region. Enjoy our handy list of Arizona’s signature birds below.

Arizona's signature birds
Montezuma Quail by Peg Abbott

Continue reading Arizona’s Signature Birds

Explore the Olympic Peninsula’s Three Biomes

Join Naturalist Journeys on an incredible Olympic Peninsula tour, June 10 – 18, 2017.

Olympic Peninsula
Rialto Beach by Woody Wheeler

About Olympic National Park

People travel far and wide to see tropical rain forests, but our expert guides like Woody Wheeler rank time in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest just as highly. Picture towering, half-century-old Sitka Spruce, Hemlock, Cedar, and Douglas Fir trees skirted by lush layers of ferns, wild berries, and other vegetation iconic to the Olympic Peninsula. On this tour, naturalists share expertise on hikes through several of these leafy green “cathedrals” near Lake Quinault and in the Hoh River rainforest. Look and listen for Pacific Wren, Vaux’s Swift, Varied Thrush, Northern Spotted Owl (very rare), and Roosevelt Elk.

Olympic Peninsula
Roosevelt Elk by Woody Wheeler

Continue reading Explore the Olympic Peninsula’s Three Biomes