Category Archives: Migration

NATURALIST JOURNEYS’ ALABAMA GUIDES ARE NOTORIOUS FOR WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Ben Raines Minds the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Andrew Haffenden Watches Over Dauphin Island

Our guests at this week’s Shorebird School with Andrew Haffenden had the great honor of cruising the lush Mobile-Tensaw Delta with local naturalist, author and filmmaker Ben Raines, whose just-published wildlife conservation book is called Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System.

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.

  • Yellow Warblers benefit from wildlife conservation efforts
  • eating Lotus seeds as Wildlife Conservation
  • This bryozoan helps with wildlife conservation acting as a filter feeder and clarifying water
  • Wildlife conservation and grasshoppers might mix
  • Our guests help support wildlife conservation
  • wildlife conservation covers plants, like this pea native to Alabama

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.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Haffenden

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. 

Our don’t-miss Dauphin Island Spring Migration trip with Andrew Haffenden is April 10-15, 2022.

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!

Clapper Rail. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

For the Long Lens Set, Major Bird Migrations Magnify European Tours for Fall

Cooler temperatures and fewer crowds make fall an ideal time for anyone booking European tours. But monumental bird migrations magnify the draw for those of us hauling long lenses and bags of binoculars. 

Guests joining Naturalist Journeys for three upcoming European tours will experience two of Earth’s eight major bird migration “flyways,” getting great looks at distinctive sets of birds coming and going to different places. 

Our Spanish Birding and Nature Sept. 3-15 and Portugal Nature and Birding Oct. 2-14 follow the East Atlantic flyway, the bird superhighway between Scandanavia and West Africa. With connecting avian flights from Siberia to the Middle East and Central Africa, our Sept. 16-25 Romania and Bulgaria Birding and Nature Tour traces the Black Sea-Mediterranean flyway. All three European tours offer ample cultural and culinary delights alongside these rich birding and nature experiences.

Illustration courtesy of Birdlife.org

Bird Migration Excites Our European Tours

Times of mass bird migration add further mystery and delight for birders already far from home on our European tours. As Carlos Sanchez, guide to our Spanish Birding and Nature Tour puts it: “You can walk the exact same paths at the same time of day and experience a very different set of birds. It’s really an exciting time of the year.”

From the birds’ own perspective, migration is a risky business, but a risk that one in five birds takes, according to BirdLife International, the world’s largest conservation partnership. As there are more than 10,000 bird species on the planet, some 2,000 of them elect to live in more than one place, summering and wintering, expanding their horizons for finding food, shelter and a place to raise their young.

Our guests enjoy delights like this beautiful example of Spanish tapas: soft cheese, Iberico ham and a crispy fried artichoke. Photo Credit: Guide Carlos Sanchez

Birds also embark on European tours, spending summers in Scandinavia and winters in Spain, Morocco and parts further south along the Eastern Atlantic Flyaway.

Some fly during the daytime, using the updraft of thermals, including the many species of Eagle we expect to see in Spain: Bonelli’s, Golden, Short-Toed and Spanish Imperial. In all, some 20 species of raptors can be found doing this daytime drift, hugging the coastlines and the mountains during spring and fall migration.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Credit: Johnathan Meyrav

Meanwhile, smaller birds will often make their journeys at night, to avoid predators, heat and dehydration, including the Common Whitethroat and other songbirds, which must cross the ever-larger Sahara desert to get to their winter homes. More of them will die trying to make that crossing than in the entirety of their 6-month winter residence in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to data from Birdlife.org. The conservation organization warns that climate change will make these transits “increasingly arduous.”

Sardinian Warbler, Photo Credit: P. Marques

The rapid loss and degradation of habitat along these bird migration flyways is one of the most significant challenges these birds face — particularly the ones that travel the furthest, like Arctic Terns, which travel from pole to pole. The unintended consequences of something as simple as a changed business model can be devastating, as with the abandonment of many European and North African saltpans — manmade structures created to harvest salt from the sea relied upon by many migrating bird species for transitory habitat.

Protecting habitat along these vast areas is a major focus for BirdLife.org and their many conservation partners. The identification and protection of Important Bird Areas is a major part of what they do.

Here’s a bit more tour-specific information about the bird species, migratory and endemic, you might expect to see:

Spain Birding and Nature in Andalusia Sept. 3-15

White-Headed Duck. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

On this trip, we explore one of the largest and most important wetlands in Europe, Doñana National Park, and experience its rich diversity of water birds, including Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Squacco Heron, and Collared Pratincole. As noted earlier, as many as 20 raptors may be seen on this trip. Our tour is also timed for the movement of songbirds.

Romania-Bulgaria Black Sea Coast Migration Sept. 16-25

Black Woodpecker. Photo Credit: George Gorman

We spend the first half of the tour in the Dobrudja region shared with both Bulgaria and Romania, exploring shallow brackish lagoons, sandy beaches, freshwater marshes and reed beds. Species we should see include Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Red-footed Falcon, and Whiskered and White-winged Terns.

We visit the only steppe habitat in the European Union and home to a rich variety of nesting grassland birds such as Pied and Black-eared Wheatears, Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks, and Long-legged Buzzard.

We end on the southern coast of Bulgaria, exploring the wetlands around Bourgas and the broad-leaved forests of the Strandzha Hills. We may see Syrian, White-backed, Lesser Spotted, and Black woodpeckers with guide Gerard Gorman, whose celebrated book “Woodpeckers of the World” is considered the definitive work on woodpecker species.

Portugal Nature and Birding Oct. 2-14

Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo Credit: George Bakken

Less-well-known to birders, Portugal hosts many of the most sought-after species such as Great Bustard, Azure-winged Magpie, Great-spotted Cuckoo, and Booted Eagle, as well as iconic European species such as Eurasian Hoopoe and Common Kingfisher.

Fall migration extends from August into early November; our timing on this Portugal birding tour is great for arriving waders, waterbirds, and raptors. By October temperatures in the vast and arid Alentejo are cooling down and every day brings overwintering species in from northern latitudes. Coastal and sea birding from the coast while in the Algarve is exceptional, with far fewer birders and crowds. Over 20,000 water-birds winter regularly.

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.