Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Top Fives of Australia



Hi friends. I'm back from Australia aka the Land Down Under aka Oz aka Th'underside aka Koalaville aka The Big Apple. Had a damn good time and saw some damn good birds.

202 species, in fact. All self-found and identified (which means lots of misidentifications, probably). Do you want to hear about them? What's that? You're sitting at a computer and have no way of answering? Well, looks like I've got you, then. You're just gonna have to sit there and look at these words and pictures.

As I sometimes (Florida) do (Texas) when I have a lot of info to share but remember that I'm lazy, I'll be presenting my trip as a set of Top Fives. Let's get down under.

Top Five Reptiles

5. uhh okay honestly I don't think we saw five. Sorry to start slow here. There are a ton of reptiles in Australia, but we weren't really looking for them and only saw what we could, during the day.

4. Snake tails. I saw just one snake the whole time, the small yellow tail of one creeping off into the leaf litter on Long Island in the Whitsundays. No idea what it was. Liz saw another tail in Mossman. This is boring I shouldn't have started with reptiles.

3. Little guys. We saw, like, a couple skinks and little fellers scampering around. Here's one, which I believe is a Northern Red-throated Skink (Carlia rubrigularis)


2. Crocodiles. Australia is famous for its crocodiles, and rightfully so. They're huge and scary and eat people a lot more frequently than is comfortable. It was interesting, between giant saltwater crocodiles and deadly summertime jellyfish collectively called "marine stingers," the perfect white sand beaches from Cairns north are completely devoid of swimmers and surfers. It's eerie, but it's better to stay dry than to be eaten up by a bloody great crocodile. 

The crocs were huge but...crocodiles are boring. They're boring. They just sit there or swim lazily around. I didn't see them feed on anything, which would have been amazing, so these lizards are just at #2. The top photo here is a male swimming in the Daintree River. He's huge, and could easily kill a human. The bottom photo is a smaller female, also on the Daintree.




1. Goanna. Yeaaahhh this guy was intense. I was talking a stroll alone down a path on Long Island, a little eco-resort we stayed at on the Whitsundays, when this massive lizard slowly crossed the path in front of me. I swear it was five feet long, a frigging Komodo dragon. People down there see monitor lizards, called Goannas, all the time but it was new to me, and intense. It didn't look threatening at all, but I didn't push my luck. It was so close and in the leaves that I couldn't really get a good picture, sorry.



Top Five Meals

5. I cooked little beef burritos on the back of our camper van one night in Kakadu. They were mediocre, but it always tastes better when you cook for yourself.

in my Australian Nick hat


4. Silky Oaks Lodge. This eco-lodge in Mossman was the fanciest and nicest place we stayed at. Our room was fantastic, and the dinner was pretty good too. I had fish, I think.

3. Opera Bar, Sydney Opera House. We had just a few hours total in Sydney, and decided to head down to the Opera House because, I mean, it's the most beautiful building I've ever seen. It really lived up to all the hype. We ate at the lively self-order restaurant bar along the lower deck of the structure, fighting off Silver Gulls and our own giddiness.

2. Breakfast at Cassowary House. We spent two nights at this little eco-lodge in the rainforest near Cairns. The accommodations were fairly bare-bones, but the atmosphere was amazing. Southern Cassowaries visited the front porch of the main house both mornings. I watched a Victoria's Riflebird -- a type of bird-of-paradise -- practice its display both mornings from my little balcony. We paid a little extra for breakfasts each morning and we were so glad we did. It was unfussy fare, just fruit, bread, yogurt, etc., but it was incredibly tasty and heightened by cassowaries, Spotted Catbirds, Musky Rat Kangaroos and other birds all around us. Great mornings.

Liz shooting a male cassowary and babies
1. The Balcony, in Townsville, QLD. This place was awesome. I got black bread and chorizo for brunch, and Liz got eggs benedict. Was the best food we had.

Top Five Bird Calls

202. Sulphur-crested Cockatoo.
It was awesome to have Sulphur-crested Cockatoo around. Incredible. They're stunning, almost caricatures of the idea of a tropical bird. One morning in the Whitsundays while I was drinking coffee from a hammock (!) one landed about three feet from me and just sat for five minutes. It was incredible.

Unfortunately, they sound like screaming hell-beasts. Just an awful, deep, grating nightmare of a call, made even worse because it shocks you out of a coconut-scented tropical bliss. Listen: http://www.xeno-canto.org/354599

5. Wompoo Fruit-dove. A pleasant sort of wobbly croak I heard a couple mornings in the rainforest.

4. Willie-wagtail. These were maybe my favorite birds of the entire trip. Imagine an Eastern Phoebe that's starker black-and-white instead of dusky gray, and instead of cutely pumping its tail it adorably shakes its little booty back and forth. They're delightful, and their squeaky little call is delightful too.

Willie-wagtail in Pine Creek 
3. Double-eyed Fig Parrot. I am terrible with bird sounds, but was proud of myself for connecting the metallic "tink!" I kept hearing to this snazzy little green bullet. It's a proud moment when you begin to recognize a species just by ear, and this was my first in Oz.

2. Black Butcherbird. This bird's set of monkey-like hoots epitomized the sound of the jungle for me, but not quite as much as...

1. Eastern Whipbird. Oh man. I think David Attenborough used this call in the background of some of his Life of Birds shows, or some of the BBC shows. I never knew what it was (and am now wondering if the song was improperly used in non-Australian jungles), so I was overjoyed to hear it throughout the Cairns area. Such a cool "boooooooooooWHIP!" song, louder than expected and pretty startling when they're close.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Prep for Australia


My wife and I are headed to Australia for a vacation in just over a week now and I'm frigging pumped. I haven't birded out of the country since 2006 when I went to Ecuador with a couple of non-birding friends. I didn't see very many species on that trip, but also put no real effort in.

This is going to be different (don't tell my wife). I am going to see a ton of insane Australian birds, from improbable sounding families (shrike-thrush? emu-wren?? duck-parrot??? [last one not real]). I can't wait. We're spending a few days in the Cairns area in and around the Daintree rainforest, then a couple days down in the Whitsunday Islands, then a few days cruising around the Top End near Darwin and Kakadu NP.

Holy crap, I've got a lot of preparation to do.

Other than a walk or two with people at the Cassowary House near Cairns, where we're staying for two nights, I won't have anyone guiding me or showing me around. I prefer birding this way (I think), but it means it's all on me to make IDs.

I'm studying hard. Some friends at Princeton University Press sent me two stunning field guides to check out that are my nightly textbooks.

The first is the brand new Australian Bird Guide, by Peter Menkhorst and a crew of other authors. This thing is a stunner, fully illustrated with every bird seemingly ever touched a talon on Australian soil. This'll be the guide I bring with me in the field.







Friday, August 4, 2017

Ptarmigeddon


I had some time after a recent work trip to Colorado, and I used it to take on my arch enemy: the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

I lived in Colorado from the end of 05 to the end of 06, but never saw a ptarmigan. I took subsequent trips to the famous Medicine Bow Curve in Rocky Mountain NP at least once (eBird says once but I'm pretty sure it was twice), but didn't see a ptarmigan. I was going to see one this time.

I started with an early morning dash up Mt. Evans, just west of Denver. I got top the top -- an insane 14,130 feet -- just before sunrise. It was spectacular. There were two families of Mountain Goats just hanging out and a handful of Bighorn Sheep, each with cute youngsters that I would have tried to pet if not for the threat of taking an angry mother's horn in my spleen.




Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Birds of Pokemon Go


Just in time for a year ago, a blog post about Pokemon Go!

I mean, shit, I'm writing for a Blogger site so who's worried about appearing timely, anyway?

Pokemon Go, the App that's sweeping the nation last year! As you probably read in a think piece, in Pokemon Go you walk around and try to catch these monsters. Some really smart people commented at the time about how close this monster catching was to actual birding. The idea is pretty much the same, and most of the monsters have antecedents in the real natural world.

And there are birds! Or, like, bird-esque things. Let's check them out and see if they're crap or real? Do you want to? No? Oh. No, we should. We should. Come on. I'll just post the pictures below and, like, talk about the real-life birds that they sorta look like. It'll take you like five seconds. OK I'm just gonna start.

Pidgey


Pidgey is the most basic Pokemon. It's so common, it should be a House Sparrow. It's not a pigeon, though, so I'm not really sure what that part is about. 

No, I'd say this bird is more of a finch or sparrow-type. Like maybe this Yellow Grassland Finch from  South America. Photo (c) Robert Ahlman


Pidgeotto and Pidgeot


Pidgy evolves into Pidgeotto and then in to Pidgeot, it's biggest, baddest form. Still nothing like a pigeon, but pretty badass. Lookie dem claws!

The closest real bird that I could find to Pidgeot is probably this Yellow Golden Pheasant, which is a domestic bird but hey we're talking about video game birds here. This pheasant doesn't look anything like a pigeon, either, but as we've established, that's fine.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Emojimnemonics


Can you name the species?







Monday, May 22, 2017

RANKS II


MORE RANKS

-Breasted Birds

10. Red-breasted Merganser 
9.  Spot-breasted Oriole
8.  Red-breasted Sapsucker
7.  White-breasted Nuthatch
6.  Buff-breasted Flycatcher
5.  Rose-breasted Grosbeak
4.  Bay-breasted Warbler
3.  Yellow-breasted Chat
2.  Buff-breasted Sandpiper
1.  Red-breasted Nuthatch


-Billed Birds

23. Long-billed Thrasher
22. Ring-billed Gull
21. Thick-billed Murre
20. Thick-billed Kingbird
19. Thick-billed Vireo
18. Short-billed Dowitcher
17. Long-billed Dowitcher
16. Red-billed Tropicbird
15. Broad-billed Hummingbird
14. Long-billed Murrelet
13. Pied-billed Grebe
12. Smooth-billed Ani
11. Groove-billed Ani
10. Hook-billed Kite
9. Red-billed Pigeon
8. Black-billed Magpie
7. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
6. Curve-billed Thrasher
5. Yellow-billed Loon
4. Gull-billed Tern
3. Long-billed Curlew
2. Black-billed Cuckoo
1. Yellow-billed Magpie

-Capped Birds

8. Dusky-capped Flycatcher
7. Black-capped Gnatcatcher
6. Plain-capped Starthroat
5. Rufous-capped Warbler
4. Black-capped Petrel
3. Black-capped Vireo
2. Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
1. Black-capped Chickadee

Thank you. These rankings are 100% correct and not open for discussion because, as I said, they are perfect.

Hey! Do you know I'm still writing a weekly column for beginner birders over at Audubon.org?? It's a ton of fun, and it's called The Birdist's Rules of Birding!

Also, did you know that I was for some reason asked to include an essay in the radical new book Good Birders Still Don't Wear White? I was! Buy your copy here and feel good about yourself because a portion of each sale goes to the ABA!


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mississippi Big Day - The Results


This past Monday, April 24, three friends and I made a run at the Mississippi Big Day record of 175 species. I ain't gonna lead you on: we didn't break the record. Everything needs to go right to set a Big Day record, and not everything went right for us. Migration just sorta didn't happen, and it was windy, and well certain species just didn't cooperate.

But we had a hell of a time, and saw some amazing birds, including one of only a handful of state records of Black-whiskered Vireo. Most importantly, we raised nearly $6k for the shorebird habitat conservation group a bunch of us work on, Delta Wind Birds.

The team was myself, and excellent Mississippi birders Jason Hoeksema, JR Rigby, and Hal Mitchell. Here are some photos and recap.

  • Midnight to 12:40 AM - Ross Barnett Reservoir, outside Jackson, MS.
Go time. We started out along the freshwater marsh, picking up two species we couldn't get anywhere south of these: King and Virginia Rail. We got them, and felt good heading out.






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