It has been five months now since Matt and I took a much-needed couple’s trip to Baja, Mexico for Naturalist Journeys Sea of Cortez cruise, a one-week choose-your-own-adventure with opportunities for birding, beachcombing, kayaking, whale-watching, snorkeling and just sitting on a beautiful beach with a book.
Looking ahead to our 2024 tour, I wanted to share my five top highlights from this trip, next departing Feb. 10 —17, perfect timing for a balmy mid-winter getaway to the warm clear skies and waters of this desert oasis in Baja Mexico’s Gulf of California.
Snorkeling has to be at the top of my list because we did it nearly every day, and it was delightful and dazzling every time we slipped on our wetsuits and masks! Snorkeling in Baja Mexico proved to be simply amazing, with large schools of big and bright tropical fish … it felt like you were snorkeling in an aquarium: massive puffer fish, Sergeant Majors, tiny day-glow blue fish, King Angelfish, eels, spiny lobster and starfish all appeared amid the healthy corals. On one excursion we even saw an octopus and a massive Panamic Green Moray eel!
2. Beachcombing & Stunning Starscapes
The sand between our toes and the clear skies above reminded us how lucky we were not to be shoveling snow in Iowa in February! It was rejuvenating to walk along with the shorebirds, collecting shells or just listening to soft surf sounds with gulls calling overhead. The perpetually clear skies were a delight both day and night, basking in the rays or soaking up the stars, which are exceptionally brilliant in this dark skies area.
3. Whale Watching Cruise
We saw our first whales breaching and blowing from the bus, and we continued to see Humpbacks and Gray Whales throughout the tour, most dramatically and close up during our Gray Whale watching tour by boat in Magdalena Bay. We were absolutely WOWed for nearly two hours with multiple whales, perhaps 10 in total, and the very most curious baby who kept approaching our boats, nudging them with its nose, scratching its back underneath, spraying quite a few of us in the face and generally putting on the most amazing show. We could not have asked for more!
4. Scenic Burro Ride
Leaving in two groups of early-risers and mid-morning, we enjoyed a scenic hour-and-a-half burro ride to take in the scenic views, look for birds and break out our cameras! Our loop trail climbed up the mountain and down into a stunning area full of stunted growth, scrubby trees and plenty of arroyos. We rode toward the beach, along the water, and then turned our burros back up and over the mountain. At the top, the view was just spectacular—aquamarine waters, sailboats, and desert studded with giant cardon cactuses, arms lifted to the sky, made the viewpoint picture perfect.
5. Sea Lion Encounter
Decked out in our snorkeling gear, we boated to a nearby rookery at Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto to jump in with a group of frolicking sea lions, who were just as curious about us as we were about them. We were immediately greeted by curious sea lion pups, who nibbled on wetsuits and hands and hair, while others rocketed around us. An added highlight for some of the group was snorkeling through a tunnel in the island and coming out above a reef that was absolutely breathtaking. The corals and fishes were animated and electric in color and we all wanted to spend more time just floating above the wonder.
*6. Amazing Baja Mexico Cuisine
If I were to name a sixth highlight, it would definitely be the delightful chef-prepared meals, which were fresh, healthy, full of local flavor and such appreciated sustenance during our hard-playing days of sand and surf.)
If you don’t have your February warm-weather getaway planned, this is one of the most delightful and relaxing tours we offer and I recommend it wholeheartedly..Join us!
Meet Kelly Vandenheuvel, your Baja Mexico Guide
Kelly has worked with Naturalist Journeys for the past ten years. She assists our lead guides on trips to Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley, the Eastern Sierras, California’s Central Coast, Yosemite National Park, Trinidad/Tobago, and Utah’s National Parks. Kelly enjoys the outdoors, travel, nature, wildlife, and working with people.
Kelly is a licensed wildlife rehabber and educator for Pacific Wildlife Care in San Luis Obispo county, and is a founding member of the organization. She is also the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival Coordinator and Owner/Broker of Central Coast Property Sales. She and her husband Art own a ranch in Cayucos, California where they live with their large menagerie of birds and mammals, both wild and domestic. When not traveling, Art and Kelly welcome guests to find peace and quiet on their ranch B&B.
The California Central Valley is famous for its gorgeous wetlands filled with various waterfowl and its endless vineyards producing some of the world’s finest wines. As huge fans of this area, Naturalist Journeys crafted the California: Birding Wine Country itinerary from February 5-11. Explore Lodi and stay at the luxury Wine & Roses Hotel while our trusted guide, David Yee, takes you to see some of the most beautiful wildlife habitats in the Central Valley. Here’s a sneak peak of the top ten birds you might see on this trip.
First, this medium-sized goose boasts bright orange legs and a white face and flies in huge flocks at this time of year. Observe them mixed in groups of other species of geese. Additionally, Greater White-fronted Geese thrive in agricultural fields like the famous Central Valley vineyards.
The California Quail is native only to the western coast of North America, they were introduced to other locations including Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Hawaii. The California Quail has a scaly-patterned belly and can be seen running along their brushy habitats.
This chunky hummingbird is most recognizable by the striking magenta heads found on males. In addition, females share the male’s greenish-gray body. Anna’s Hummingbirds are only found in North America.
Lewis’s Woodpecker is one of the larger members of the woodpecker family, with pink, silver, and oily green feathers. It is also one of the strangest. Despite its family name, this bird’s flight pattern resembles a crow and foraging methods are like a flycatcher.
Another bird native to North America, the Western Bluebird is a beautiful backyard species that thrives in open woodlands. Despite their territorial nature, a large number of nests with youngsters in them are defended by males that did not father them.
Finally, easily recognizable by its strange call, this bird is a North American beauty. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are huge fans of wetlands, especially those sporting cattails.
To sum up, you don’t want to miss this California Birding Wine Country tour, an immersive guided tour that allows you to bird premier National Wildlife Refuges and witness iconic western species. To find out more about our California trip, visit our website or click the link below:
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.
Last month we asked you to share some of your most influential birding books—here are a few favorite books that got you hooked!
The Complete Birder, Jack Connor, 1988. This birding book transformed my birding from watching and matching to a field guide to the art of comparative study between species. It helped me pace myself for careful study of shorebirds and even gave me hope for gulls. A gem still relevant today.
Roger Tory Peterson’s Dozen Birding Hotspots, George Harrison, 1976. This publication came two years post high-school graduation for me and I was already birding from escapades in my first car, a Plymouth Duster my parents had passed on to me. I immediately pointed it to the first hotspot I explored, Cave Creek Canyon. I said right then, someday I am going to live here (I do now). I got to all of the hotspots and many more but it gave me my first map and sense of urgency to get out and see these premier places.
Birding on Borrowed Time. When Phoebe Snetsinger died, my local paper did a front page story about her. I discovered she lived only two blocks from me, so I read her biography, Birding on Borrowed Time, discovering there was a hobby of birding all over the world.
From William Leon Dawson’s account for Bufflehead in Birds of California: “We would cuddle him in our arms, and stroke his puffy cheeks and rainbow hue, or give a playful tweak to his saucy little nose. But he does not immediately reciprocate our desire to fondle him…”.
Golden Guide to the Birds of North America— Chandler S. Robbins, Herbert S. Zim, Bertel Brunn— 1966: This is the classic field guide that introduced many in the United States to the birds of North America, and I studied the copy at my elementary school endlessly. I was especially interested in artwork and sketching at the time, and I would often practice by copying individual birds from the book onto blank pieces of paper.
Parrots of the World— Joseph Michael Forshaw— 1977: This is a beautiful birding book full of information and scientific illustrations on every single known parrot species, my favorite group of birds. I eventually even got to go to Bowra Station in Queensland, Australia in 2009 to visit the very same place where Forshaw made a lot of his observations on parrots!
The Observer’s Book of Birds by S. Vere Benson (any Brits of a certain age reading this will know it). It was one in a series (with Birds Eggs, Butterflies, Trees, Fungi, Horses, Dogs, Postage Stamps, etc., etc.). An absolute little pocket-sized gem, with paintings of every bird in Britain and succinct texts. I devoured that book. I still have it.
My Year with the Woodpeckersby Heinz Sielmann. This birding book made a huge impression on me. It was first published in 1959 (before I was born!). It mainly tells the story of how Sielmann, a German zoologist and film-maker, filmed INSIDE the tree cavity nests of woodpeckers. I got the book after watching him interviewed on TV and seeing his black-and-white film of nesting woodpeckers on a BBC nature program. It was incredible stuff, he was the first to do it and, compared to today, with very basic equipment.
Birds of North Americafield guide (Golden Press). I was a biology major at Rutgers College (before it was a University) and in 1981 I enrolled in an Ornithology course taught by Dr. Charles Leck (who unbeknownst to me was also the State Ornithologist for New Jersey). The Golden field guide was one of the birding books we had to purchase and using this guide we had to learn 150 birds for the course including their orders, families, and Latin names. This book and Dr. Leck started me on my birding path and has led to all of the wonderful places I’ve been and many of friends I’ve met since that share my passion.
A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jerseyby William (Bill) J. Boyle, Jr. When I began birding after college this was the birding book I purchased to help me explore NJ in search of birds. It was my bible and my road map and I still use it today. The book lists all of the author’s best birding spots in NJ with maps, directions, and times of year certain species may be present. It is in this book I first read about the wonders of Cape May, a place I have visited many times since in the spring and fall. Trips to Cape May led me to NJ Audubon and the wonderful people at the Cape May Bird Observatory. I soon joined CMBO’s World Series of birding century run teams and learned from birders like Pat & clay Sutton and David Sibley (yes, that David Sibley) who worked at CMBO way back then. Years later I joined the NJ Audubon “Wandering Tattlers” team made up of board members and corporate sponsors (that’s how I punched my ticket) and our leader every year was none other than Bill Boyle. Bill and I still keep in touch, and his book really was a huge part of my discovering what an awesome state I live in for both people, nature, and birds.
Although I’ve essentially been a biologist since I was eight years old—probably from the day I returned to our family campsite with a 50-inch Bull Snake draped across my shoulders, scaring my poor mother witless—my appreciation for birding developed in fits and starts. Not surprisingly, my hotly anticipated career in herpetology never materialized, and I ultimately spent much of my youth in the Mojave Desert peering through a hand lens, honing what would eventually become a professional interest in plant taxonomy. But still not limiting myself to botany at that point, I wanted to know the names of everything I ran across, and not just the wildflowers. What lizard was that, and that dragonfly, and by the way, what were those pale little birds that blended in so well under the creosote bushes?
They were Horned Larks, I learned, though not from a book or a field guide, but a simple pamphlet handed out by the National Park Service at Lake Mead. But the seed was planted. Years went by, I was now teaching at Oregon State, and I continued to flirt with a passing interest in birding—a Pileated Woodpecker here, a Clark’s Nutcracker there. Fate had to intervene it seemed, and in 1994, as I was organizing a research trip to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, I came across a publication byAlfred Bailey entitled Birds of Arctic Alaska (published 1948). How it ended up stacked near the floristic manuals and plant presses we were loading up for Prudhoe is a mystery, but there it was, so I tossed it in my rucksack.
Travel from Oregon to Deadhorse took a full day, and with time to kill I flipped open Bailey’s book, which detailed an expedition he took to the Arctic coast in the early 1920s. Just where I was going! And so many birds I’d never heard of! And I’d probably have time to look for them, since it was summer—when it never got dark! Why the book resonated with me so much I’ll never know, but I spent as much time on that trip birding as I did stooped over our tundra research plots. By the time we got back, my interest in birding was no longer passing.
The deal was sealed in 1998 when I first went to Africa. Again, botany took the lead, as we were primarily going to photograph the wide array of spectacular geopyhtes (i.e., bulb-bearing plants) that South Africa is famous for. But I didn’t leave without bringing along Birds of Southern Africaby Ian Sinclair, et al. And if I envisioned myself a serious birder before, my interest shifted to another level as we traveled through South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana.
Although an identification guide, and completely different than Bailey’s book, Birds of Southern Africa was (and still is) beautifully put together, and was the key to making the most of a very memorable trip. It was the first of many international birding books for me, and I still remember it as the one that got me hooked on ecotravel.
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez and This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich. Both books are broad scope portraits of place, but also the minutia of daily life in these places. Both contain gorgeous writing and language, emotion, and much to think about. The Inuit have 23 words for Ice!
Like most of the guides, The Golden Guide by Zim, et al, was my first birding book and remains my favorite. Years ago National Geographic published a 2-volume Birds of North America – one volume with song and garden birds, and the other with raptors and shore/sea birds. Both volumes contained these little vinyl records with bird songs and calls that I listened to constantly to learn more about birds. I wish I still had them but they got lost somewhere in my many moves.
We asked and you responded! Here are some of our Naturalist Journeys client’s most influential birding books:
When I was in junior high in the early 1960s, I had to pick a project from our science textbook. I chose identifying all the birds on the school grounds. Our school ground was not very bird friendly, so I changed the area to our rural yard and fields. Thank goodness, our school library had a copy of Louisiana Birds by George H. Lowery, Jr.
There was no Internet, no public library, and no money to buy a bird guide. Lowery’s book started me on a lifelong journey of birding. I was delighted when the third edition was printed in 1974 so that I could own a copy of that wonderful book. I have a shelf of birding books, but I still pull out the Louisiana Birdsto read the historical account of one species or another.
Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern version. I got my hands on my mom’s copy at a very early age (about two) — interpreting the silhouette page as a dot-to-dot puzzle! I took up birding seriously at age 10, and had this book pretty well memorized by adulthood. Too bad I can’t still do that now.
In my teenage years, I was introduced to the Western U.S. That first evening, camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, I couldn’t identify any of the amazing birds, and quickly realized I needed a different book. I still have the tattered Peterson Western guide that we bought the next morning.
Of course, our shelves now contain piles of books about birds from around the world. I hope we will be able to resume traveling, and birding, in new countries soon.
Roger Tory Peterson’sAField Guide to the Birds which has been my constant birding companion since I got hooked on birding in the mid-1970s. I’m also a book collector, so as exciting to me as spotting a great life bird is finding a great bird book: my ultimate find was a pristine 1934 first edition of Peterson’s guide, which I found on a 3/$1.00 table at a library sale twenty-five years ago.
A Pocket Guide to Birds by Allan Cruickshank. My mother’s best friend, and my surrogate mother, who introduced me to birding as an 8-year old, was Helen Cruickshank’s sister, and an ardent amateur naturalist herself. I vividly recall Allan’s escapades following birds to all sorts of unlikely heights, armed only with his giant box camera and an indomitable spirit. He autographed my 1954 copy (I was 10). I was, and am, hooked. The book, with Helen’s photographs, is probably now out of print, but it will always be current for me.
The Golden Guide to Birds of North America. When I taught second grade, I always did a unit on California backyard birds plus some other species everyone needs to recognize like the American Eagle. I bought many copies of the small children’s version of the Golden guide and used it to teach them how to use an index. I would hear years later that learning about birds and raising and tagging Monarch butterflies was what they remembered about elementary school.
Carlos Sanchez describes his experience from visits to Brazil’s birding and wildlife spectacle, The Pantanal. Carlos sits on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society. He is a regular contributor to the birding blog 10,000 Birds, and leads local tours through his company, EcoAvian Tours. He’s also a former resident guide at lodges in both Ecuador and Brazil.
The Pantanal is a vast, seasonally flooded wetland. The largest in the world and in the southwest corner of the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Among birders, wildlife photographers, and nature enthusiasts, it is renowned for its incredible concentrations of birds at the end of the dry season. During this time, the fish get trapped in the shrinking pools of water. This attracts hordes of herons, egrets, storks, and other wetland species. The star of such huge concentrations is the massive Jabiru. The Jabiru towers over a diverse collection of South American waterbirds such as Sunbittern, Plumbeous Ibis, and Southern Screamer. Raptors such as Savanna Hawk, Snail Kite, and Black-collared Hawk, and up to five species of kingfisher also join the bonanza. It truly is one of the world’s great birding spectacles.
Several years ago, I had the good fortune to be able to
visit the Pantanal before my guiding stint at Cristalino Lodge. It was my first
of several subsequent visits over the years, but a first time visit to a place
always seems to be the most impactful. I quickly learned that everything I had
ever read about the Pantanal was true — this was truly a birder’s paradise.
Everything was easy to see and easy to photograph. Did you miss that perfectly
perched Snail Kite or Green Ibis? Not to worry. There were always more just
around the corner. The Pantanal was the type of place where ‘there is always
more of everything’ seemed to be a recurring theme.
The Pantanal hosts a mosaic of forest islands and riverside forest. Home to an interesting assemblage of regional endemics such as Mato Grosso Antbird, White-lored Spinetail, and Pale-crested Woodpecker. It is in this habitat in which most of the near-endemic Pantanal specialties occur. Because of its excellent gallery forest and proximity to the southern portion of the Transpantaneira Highway. The Transpantaneira highway transects the northern Pantanal, starting from the town of Pocone down to Porto Jofre. I chose to stay at SouthWild Pantanal which is formerly the Pantanal Wildlife Center. A lodge that features as the grand finale to Naturalist Journey’s tour to the area.
I must mention one thing, dawn in the Pantanal is spectacular. Warm golden-yellow hues shoot through the trees and across the landscape. This quickly wakes up with the calls and movements of thousands of birds. Days started just outside the lodge, watching the commuting birds. Keeping a special eye out for Golden-collared Macaw! The feeders hosted Toco Toucan and Red-crested Cardinals, stars of the show. Joined by a supporting cast of blackbirds, pigeons, doves, aracaris, and others.
Once the birds settled down for the morning, I explored the forest interior. Consistently practicing my Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl imitation to draw in flocks containing Rufous Casiornis, Masked Gnatcatcher, and more. In the afternoon, I took a boat trip, the shores were teaming with birds and caiman. Ending the day with Band-tailed Nighthawks feeding over the river. It is easy to see over a hundred species in a day in the Pantanal without ever using a motorized vehicle — such is the bounty of the Pantanal.
With a pre-dawn start down the Transpantaneira Highway, it took up until noon to finally reach Porto Jofre. Such was the quality of the birding to be had along the road here. Unlike the more northerly segment of the highway, the southern Transpantaneira crosses much wetter, much more open wetlands that many species seem to prefer.
As I was driving, I quickly noticed a red light among the reeds near the side of the road and stopped. A Scarlet-headed Blackbird, only one of two birds seen on the trip. The open fields along the way had multiple bizarre Southern Screamer and elegant Maguari Stork. The patches of forest here are excellent for Fawn-breasted Wren. They can only be seen in this part of the Pantanal. As one drives south, the wooden bridges become increasingly rickety (with one of the long ones twisted sideways). Crossing them was like taking a leap of faith each time.
Halfway between SouthWild Pantanal and the northern terminus of the Transpantaneira, Pousada Alegre offers slightly more affordable lodging set within a working cattle ranch. A great opportunity to see Brazilian Tapir. Although birding here did not revolve around specific target species, it was still highly enjoyable and it was the only place where I saw Red-billed Scythebill. For the first time ever, I went birding by horseback, to get deeper into the wetlands. It was certainly not great for seeing small birds, but in the Pantanal where many of the birds are large and conspicuous, this method certainly works. Plus it was fun! I will never forget the experience of rolling out of bed, walking down a couple miles and back, and having breakfast at around 8:00 AM with a day list already over 100 species.
Pousada Piuval was the last stop of my trip in this glorious wetland, located north of the start of the Transpantaneira. Here, the landscape is not seasonally flooded for as long as points further in the south. Termite mounds are conspicuous. Many species more typical of the cerrado scrub-grasslands to the north and east are common, including Red-legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Gilded Flicker, and more. It is one of the best places in Brazil to see White-fronted Woodpecker – a specialty more typical of the Chaco of Paraguay and Argentina –occuring in small numbers at Pousada Piuval. Giant Anteater, arguably one of the world’s most incredible mammals, ambles along in certain paddocks in the early morning. Always a special sighting!
Alas, it was over too soon. My last sunset in the Pantanal was spent admiring a pair of Hyacinth Macaw. They are the largest parrot in the Western Hemisphere and one of Brazil’s great conservation success stories. It was a great way to end this part of my trip.
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.”
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 heading to Veracruz, Mexico this fall for a raptor migration tour: a bamboozling bird count!
By Dave Mehlman,
I was recently at a meeting and heard my good friend and colleague, Dr. Ernesto Ruelas, recount the history behind the establishment of the Veracruz River of Raptors hawk migration project many years ago. Ernesto, now on the faculty of the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Mexico, first became interested in the hawk migration there many years ago when he was a young boy, and he became inspired by the sheer number of migrating birds. His talk got me very excited about our upcoming raptor migration tour to Veracruz from September 25 to October 5, 2019—you will not want to miss it!
The talk also reminded me to look up the data on the fall 2018 hawk count in Veracruz, and as usual, the numbers were outstanding! A total of 2,122,814 raptors were counted in the town of Cardel, and 2,270,056 in the nearby town of Chichicaxtle! Even though I’ve been there before, it’s still hard to imagine that many hawks passing through a single site – the perfect destination for our raptor migration tour.
As has generally been the case, the most popular species in 2018 were Turkey Vulture (1,081,774 in Cardel), Broad-winged Hawk (844,258 in Chichi), Swainson’s Hawk (321,064 in Chichi), and Mississippi Kite (131,813 in Chichi). However, a total of 16 other raptor species were counted during last year’s fall season, illustrating the diversity. Plus, certain species that were not known to be very migratory have regularly been recorded there, such as Hook-billed Kite (101 in Chichi).
The thing is, there’s so much more to this trip than migrating raptors! Pelicans, storks, flycatchers, subtropical and tropical birds, archaeology, museums, good food—this trip has it all!
Belize retains the highest percentageof its original old growth tropical forest of any Central American country, much of it in southern districts. Exploring on this Southern Belize nature tour is an impressive experince, but it’s not all about birds: Charismatic land mammals such as Black Howler Monkey, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, Tayra, Kinkajou, and Baird’s Tapir are not unexpected during treks here along wooded trails. (We even crossed paths with a Jaguar on a recent trip.) But did you know that Belize also has extensive Honduran Pine forests at the cooler, higher elevations, with a completely different set of species? We explore both ecosystems during this intriguing trip. Continue reading Why a Southern Belize Nature Tour?→
Our Adventures in Nature, Birding, and Ecotourism www.naturalistjourneys.com