Friday, October 23, 2020

Not traveling, but still birding. Our amazing postage stamp yard.


I normally use my posts to tell about our birding travels, but all of that screeched to a halt in mid-March, when the Covid 19 pandemic hit Texas and the rest of the world. Today I was thinking about how this changed our birding for the year. I am not sure if it is of interest to anyone, but what else do I have to do?

We live in an apartment complex in the middle of the medical district in San Antonio, TX. We moved here a little over eight years ago. When the manager showed us this apartment we walked into the front door, saw through the sliding glass door to the backyard and said that we would take it, even before seeing the rest of the apartment.  The balcony of our second floor apartment sits in the canopy of a group of mature live oaks. Even though the yard it not much bigger than a basketball court we immediately saw the potential for birds. We knew it would be good, but we had no idea just how good it would be.

We started a "balcony list" as soon as we moved in. As it was July, there wasn't a lot of variety, but it was nice to see breeding birds, like Black-crested Titmice and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. As soon as fall migration kicked in we added quite a few new birds. We ticked along, adding winter residents and then spring migrants, particularly warblers. I was working full time, so my home birding was limited. By the end of the first year we had 56 species for the balcony. We continued to add birds. I switched to working from home about a year and a half after moving, which helped a lot. We finally got to 100 species in April of 2019. We had a number of extremely good birds, including a Broad-billed Hummingbird visiting my shrimp plant in January 2015. Spring migration was the most fun. We had accumulated an impressive list of warblers.

Then 2020 came along. I was furloughed from my job in corporate travel in March. We took covid very seriously, self-quarantine immediately.  Martin stopped doing his consulting work. There was very little to do other than sit on the balcony and look for birds. My time birding went from less than an hour a day to all freaking day long every day. OK, maybe not all day, but I was probably averaging five or six hours. Martin was spending a good bit of his time there, too. When we starting sheltering at home our list was at 106 species. We thought we wouldn't add much, but we were wrong. 

The first new bird I found was a Louisiana Waterthrush that literally dropped in on March 23. We have no water in the yard, other than a couple of clay plant saucers under the trees. I had never seen a Louisiana away from water before. We would go out close to dawn and scan the tree tops. Birds would come in and feed, then take off moving north. Some of the fly-over birds, like Upland Sandpiper, and Black-necked Stilt were surprising, to say the least. As I said, we had a great warbler list, 24 species before quarantine. We had repeats of almost all of them, including a couple of Golden-winged Warblers. In the past we had seen three or four Ovenbirds total; this past spring we had at least ten. Our "best" sighting was a female Cerulean Warbler on May 12, a new county bird for me! 


Even after Spring migration I continued birding every day, though not for as long a period. I can only stand so much Texas heat. I had some surprises in summer like a Eastern Wood-pewee in June and a female Painted Bunting in July who stayed just a minute before she took off.  A pair of Black-and-white Warblers, also in July, were a surprise.

Soon some fall migrants started arriving like empidonax flycatchers and Summer Tanagers. In early September I spotted an Eastern Kingbird and numerous Baltimore Orioles. I was lucky to find another new warbler species, a Mourning. I added balcony bird #131 a couple of days ago, a migrating Northern Harrier flying over,

As I said earlier we had 106 species for the back yard when the pandemic started. We now stand at 131. More surprising is our total list for the balcony just this year is 109 species! Considering it took almost seven years to get to 100 species, we were very pleased. This included 25 species of warblers, 12 species of flycatchers, and six species of vireos. Our all time warbler total is 27 species! 

As I said, the yard it tiny. The only under-story we have are two tiny clumps of ligustrum. We worked very hard this year. Other than a very few day trips to close areas we have stuck to birding the apartment complex. I believe many people could significantly increase their yard lists if they put in the time. We do have a bird feeder and the plant saucer "water features", but most of the sightings have been in the trees. We pay attention to weather patterns. We found that frontal passages would cause drop-ins. The Cerulean Warbler was here during a little rain shower. 

Here is a link to Martin's album of photos on Facebook from the balcony.-'s photos

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Fresh Water Pelagic?

Birding the large lakes of Texas can be challenging. Texas ranks 45th in the United States for the amount of public land, a miserly 4.5%. Most lake shore is taken up with private residences, agricultural land, or other privately held land.  There are usually boat ramps, and sometimes parks, but the viewing opportunities can be very limited. We do not trespass as a matter of conscience, and also because we don't want to get shot, but mostly conscience. So, what to do?

Last year, our friend, Willie Sekula brought up the idea of hiring a fishing guide with a boat to take us out on Lake Amistad, near Del Rio, which sits on the border with Mexico. We were in right away! He contacted someone that he knew of and we set it up. We went out and had a very good time, though we didn't find a lot that was rare. (The best bird was a Bald Eagle on the Mexico side.) We decided to do it again this year. Willie got in touch with the guy and set it up.

We left the East Diablo Boat Ramp at about 730AM. Besides Willie, Martin Reid, and myself, two other San Antonio birders joined us, John Karges and Christian Fernandez. We were really lucky with the weather. It was relatively clear with almost no wind. The lake was very calm. Unfortunately, it was also very cold, at least for Texans, about 37 degrees. Tearing around in a fast boat made it seem even colder. I was glad to have my heaviest coat on and gloves, scarf and hat. (My knitting pays off.)

As the boat was being launched we scanned the tires used as a break-water. Willie had seen an Iceland Gull the day before. We were thrilled to see one, but it was a different bird than his! For there to be two birds as rare as this was very exciting. We also had a nice adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, along with a lot of Ring-bills and Herrings. The Iceland took off and headed east on the lake.

We originally planned to head west out into the more open water, but decided to go east instead to see if we could re-find the gull. Also, Willie had seen a Western Grebe on that end from another boat ramp. We had two Common Loons very close to the boat ramp. They are not rare, but not a bird we see a lot of. There were some Red-breasted Mergansers, Eared Grebes, and a lot of coots. We saw a few more loons and a few Horned Grebes. There is always the possibility of a rarer species of loon, so we were checking all of them very carefully.

A loon popped up that looked a little different, though it was quite distant. It seemed smaller and paler, but on the water looks can be deceiving. We got closer and could see that the bill was smaller and slightly upturned. We were thrilled when we realized it was a Red-throated Loon, which had never been recorded on this lake. Then we spotted a second one! We were able to get decent photos and were really chuffed, as Martin would say. The birds flew off and we pressed on. I spotted another loon in front of us, and was stunned to realize it was a third Red-throated. This was obviously a different bird, with first year plumage. There were several Common Loons near it, giving us a great opportunity to compare the two species.

We went under the Hwy.277 bridge, that crosses the east end of the lake. This was where Willie had seen the Western Grebe the day before. We didn't find it, but there were many ducks, including a gorgeous male Cinnamon Teal. About 300 Canvasbacks were mixed in with the other ducks. There were also fifty billion American Coots. OK, maybe not quite that many, but there were a lot. Martin saw a few Sandhill Cranes putting in at the back, but I missed them.

Since it was getting close to mid-morning we decided to head back west, with a stop at the boat ramp, where there are rest rooms, and then go out near the dam. When we got back to the boat ramp, there were four Lesser Black-backed Gulls, two adults and two young birds. There was another bird that looked somewhat like another Iceland Gull, but closer examination eliminated that species. After the brutal walk up the hill to the restrooms, we went back and boarded the boat and took off.

We went west to the dam, which has a busy border crossing on it. We were surprised to not have very many birds, other than a couple of Common Loons and gulls. We pressed further west. We went into a cove to check out another loon and a few other birds. I glanced up the lake and could seen an enormous raft of birds. I could see there were a lot of coots, but there were ducks mixed in. We headed that way, trying not to flush the birds, which boats often do. There were several thousand coots, but a lot of American Wigeon and Canvasbacks were mixed in. Then I briefly glimpsed a raptor flying by. It went behind the kind of cabin thing where the driver stood. (I am a real expert on boat terminology!) I called it out. Then Christian could see it from his side and he said "Bald Eagle!" These are pretty rare in the area of the lake, so we were really excited. It flew out into the open and we all got good looks. Then another one appeared!

We pressed further west to see Goodenough Springs, also known as Hinajosa Springs. This spring is located at the floor of the lake, which is about 100 feet deep there. The spring is so powerful you can see the water coming up on the surface. It was pretty impressive! Time was moving on, so we headed back east. A small falcon shot over the boat, which we identified as a Merlin. We were particularly lucky that it ended up on the Mexican side, so I was able to add it to my Mexico list.

We got back to the dam and started spotting more Common Loons, and lots more coots. As we were looking through the birds a Peregrine Falcon came roaring through and tried to grab a coot. The coot escaped, but I am sure his heart was racing. Then we heard one of the loons start to yodel. This is a sound that is hardly ever heard in Texas. The birds call up north when they are breeding, but rarely down here where they winter. That sound is so visceral. The birds were diving and staying under water until they popped up half was across the lake. It was a beautiful show.

We got back to the dock at about 4PM. We were still a bit chilled, even though the sun had been shining all day and the temperature was up to about 60. There were a few gulls hanging around, but nothing to write home about.We all were extremely happy with the trip and may do it again. I would like to do some of the other lakes in the state, particularly further west, like Red Bluff. There is so much to be discovered!

Here are a few photos from the day:

Here is the bird list:

Cinnamon Teal-1
American Wigeon-300
Mexican Duck-6
Green-winged Teal-1
Ring-necked Duck-3
Red-breasted Merganser-32
Ruddy Duck-2
Pied-billed Grebe-3
Horned Grebe-17
Eared Grebe-33
Greater Roadrunner-1
American Coot-6,900
Sandhill Crane-6
Spotted Sandpiper-3
Greater Yellowlegs-10
Ring-billed Gull-143
Herring Gull-41
Iceland Gull-1
Lesser Black-backed Gull-5
Forster's Tern-15
Red-throated Loon-3
Common Loon-34
Neotropic Cormorant-30
Double Crested Cormorant-58
American White Pelican-10
Great Blue Heron-3
Great Egret-4
Black Vulture-5
Turkey Vulture-1
Bald Eagle-2
Red-tailed Hawk-3
Crested Caracara-1
American Kestrel-2
Peregrine Falcon-1
Loggerhead Shrike-1
Rock Wren-1
House Finch-1
Great-tailed Grackle-8

Monday, July 8, 2019

And the midnight sun sets for us.

We got up and out the door of the Holiday Inn, which I recommend, and left for our last day in Alaska. We had pretty much ignored the town, choosing to go to locations away from town. There are a number of birding and butterflying spots around Fairbanks, so we decided to hit those before we left.

Our first stop was Creamer's Field Migratory Bird Refuge. This is probably the best known birding spot in Fairbanks. Previously a dairy, this location of over 2,000 acres, inside the city limits, draws both birds and birders. The refuge has water, fields, and forest. During migration the number of birds passing through can be impressive. Even outside of migration it is a great spot. One of the open fields by the entrance had a large number of Sandhill Cranes, and our only Canada Geese of the trip. Tree and Cliff Swallows were zipping everywhere.

We walked back into a wooded area with a pond. This was a good decision as far as birds go, but we found quite a few of the famous Alaskan mosquitoes. We were very happy to find some Rusty Blackbirds, a bird whose numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years. A breeding-plumaged Horned Grebe was swimming in the pond, along with various ducks. Yellow Warblers were singing in trees all around us. Martin found four Hammond's Flycatchers. The mosquitoes finally won and pushed out to the fields, where we searched for butterflies, but did not see anything new.

Martin had a butterfly location on Ballaine Road, on the north side of town. We found a parking spot and started hunting for bugs. We saw some of the same things we had seen before. I was happy to find a Common Ringlet, a bug I had seen many times before, but I really like them. I also, !gasp!, photographed a Boreal Whiteface, a dragonfly. It was already starting to heat up. After working the area for about an hour we decided to give some other spots a try.

Our next stop was the Peat Ponds Wildlife Area. Martin was thinking it might produced some good dragonflies, and it is another site for breeding birds. We saw a few birds, but no new dragonflies. We then stopped at Smith Lake, part of the University of Alaska's grounds. It was quite a walk in, on a winding path through forest and fields. We got to the lake, but the nesting Mew Gulls weren't having it. One was diving at us over and over. We left them in peace.

The smoke from wildfires had cleared, so we decided to drive up to Murphy Dome again. I was very glad to be riding in an air-conditioned car. I was hot and feeling incredibly tired. The long days of the trip were taking their toll, and this was the warmest day of our trip, about 85, which is almost sweater weather in Texas, so I am not sure why it was bothering me. There was no sign of smoke as we drove up, so we thought maybe the fire was done. Boy, were we wrong! We couldn't even drive all the way up. The road was barricaded a mile or so down from the dome. A man stationed there told us it was off limits, the fire was worse, the wind was just blowing the smoke the other way. I couldn't believe it when Martin said "We only want to go up for a half hour or so." Even his magic English accent couldn't budge the guy.

We went back to town for lunch. We were both so beat we took a long time, not looking foward to going back out. This is not our usual method of operation.We finally felt a bit rested and went back out. I wanted to see a Musk Ox, even if it wasn't a wild one, so we drove by the Large Animal Research Station. We didn't want to do a tour, but we could see a couple of Musk Ox from the roadside. I wish I could have afforded to buy some of the yarn they sell there, but at $90 a skein, barely enough to knit a small hat, I passed. Musk Ox yarn, called qiviut, is considered one of the finest yarns in the world. If anybody has any laying around that they don't want, let me know.

We went back to Ballaine Road. Martin walked around for quite a while. I wimped out and went back to the car. He finally returned and asked me what I wanted to do. I had nothing. Neither did he. We decided to go have an early dinner and then maybe go back to the airport. We found a fast food place that was cool, had dinner and lingered for a lot longer than we normally would. I am not sure why we were so tired, but we both were done.

We weren't far from the airport and I knew there were some eBird hotspots nearby. We decided to go see what we could find. The first spot we tried was the seaplane float ponds. They are not visible from the road, so that was out. I remembered a pond by the car rental parking lot at the airport, so we headed over there. We found a place to pull over and scan the pond. There were the ever-present Mew Gulls, a few ducks, and a beautiful Red-necked Grebe. We called it a day, went and filled up the car and returned it. We were way early for our flight, but it was nice to sit, and to buy some over-priced trinkets from the gift shop.

I enjoyed this trip so much! Even with little glitches, it was an incredible experience. I don't know very many people, (maybe any?) who have been to Fairbanks for birding or butterflies. I would highly recommend it. You won't get a huge bird list, but we saw some great stuff. We ended up seeing 12 species of mammals and 74 species of birds. We are still working on butterfly IDs. The wildflowers were breathtaking. If you read my posts, thank you for taking the time!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

All mammals, all the time!

We got up and had every intention of hanging around Fairbanks for the day. We had not hit any of the local birding or butterfly spots. We ate breakfast and started towards a road well known for butterflies. As we turned onto the road we had taken out of Fairbanks to Denali two days prior, I was thinking we really should have gone back and done the bus trip. When would we ever get the chance to see Grizzly Bears? Just then Martin said "What do you think about us going back to Denali instead and do the bus trip?" I almost shouted "YES!" He was a bit surprised at my enthusiasm and I told him I had just been thinking that. It was about 8AM, which gave us plenty of time to make the 11AM bus.

Most bus ticket sales are advanced purchase. There are a few available at the bus station, but it is a gamble. I went online to see what was available. I had trouble connecting to the web page, so I called. The 11AM bus was full, but there were two seats on the 12 PM bus. This would get us back to the but terminal at 8PM and we would still have over a two hour drive back to Fairbanks. We decided it was totally worth it. We hustled up, though we had plenty of time. We stopped and got way more food than we needed in Healy. (There is no food or drinks available in the park.) We arrived at the park and went in to check in. We were over an hour early.

They told us to start lining up outside for the bus about 15 minutes before departure. We got in line over a half hour before, to make sure we got first choice of seats. People started filtering in and we chatted a bit. Finally, the bus pulled up. We decided to sit one row back from the front, thinking it might be a better view. The bus loaded up and we were stunned that no one sat across the aisle from us. I figured if no one wanted the seat, I would move over there, as that would have us on both sides of the bus to spot stuff. I felt a little guilty, having a seat to myself, but not guilty enough to move.

Our driver Brian got on and we took off. He gave us the lowdown on how the transit buses operate and what he expected from us. The transit buses run on the hour. Some go to Toklat River, which is at mile 53; some go to Eieslen Visitor Center, at mile 66; two other buses go further into the park, the farthest to mile 92. We had chosen Eieslen, which would be four hours in and four hours back. You are free to get off the bus whenever you want, hike or whatever, and flag the next bus down and get on. Of course, if that bus is full, you have to wait for the next one. They make rest stops every hour or so for 10 or 15 minutes, and stop for any wildlife.

Brian told us to keep all body parts inside the bus, though it was ok to put camera lens out the windows. He also said IF we had any wildlife encounters to try and maintain silence. He stressed how we were visitors and the park was the animals' home. They don't want them to be accustomed to hearing a lot of voices. The bears and other mammals don't associate the buses with human beings. If they hear hikers talking they take off to avoid them. The park wants it to continue this way. We were also instructed to not eat food outside of the bus. I was a bit concerned about his use of the words "IF we have wildlife encounters."

We covered the first fifteen miles pretty quickly, aiming to get into the part of the park not open to the public. Brian shared a lot of good information with the bus. He had been working in the park in various capacities for the last 15 summers. We found out he was a birder! Even before we passed the gate at mile 15, we were looking for animals, with no luck. Shortly after passing it Brian called out to look ahead on the road, where a Willow Ptarmigan was sitting. He looked for chicks, but didn't see any. A few people asked questions about what to expect. He was noncommittal, saying there were no guarantees. He said because it was so warm the mammals were likely to not be active. This did not make me happy. Deep inside a voice was saying, "No bears for you!"

We had gone quite some ways, and had even had our first bathroom break, with no mammals. That voice was getting louder. Brian knew Martin and I were birders, so he let us know we were coming up to a Gyrfalcon aerie, though he said he hadn't seen one there in the last few days. We were still stoked. We came around a bend to it and there was no Gyrfalcon, but there was a Dall's Sheep, one of the "big five." We had seen Dall's Sheep outside of Anchorage on my first Alaska trip, but they were tiny white dots up high on a mountain sid. This one was on eye level!  We pulled in a bit farther up the road to maintain some distance and allow everyone on the bus to get a look. This sheep was very well photographed! Right above its head was a long streak of Gyrfalcon shit. I think, since the bird's DNA was present, I should be allowed to count it!

We finally saw a Caribou by the Toklat River. It was a bit manky looking, shedding its coat, but still impressive. We pushed on. We were getting near the end of the line, where we would turn around, and still had not see any bears. I had asked Brian if there were trips where they didn't see them. He answered they usually did, but he had had several this year without any. I was feeling more and more uncertain, but still happy we had come. The scenery was unbelievable, and Brian was a fountain of knowledge. (Boy, does that sound trite!) He explained why the rivers were so muddy. The water was from glacier melt, which happens every year. He did remark that with climate change the rivers were higher and the glaciers were shrinking. The water is muddy because glaciers pick up debris as they move. The melt is full of dirt and stones. So much for pure glacier bottled water! I had to laugh.

We passed many buses on the way. Martin and I both were surprised at how much traffic we saw. Besides the transit buses, there are actual tour buses, cruise ship operated buses, and camp buses, going to the various camp grounds. I wondered how they saw any animals at all. As we passed one of the buses, a passenger asked Brian a question. He said "I'm sorry. I was distracted. The driver of that bus signaled me on something." We came around the bend and I saw three pale brown shapes in the grassy field below us. BEARS! That was what the driver was telling Brian.

We reached a good vantage point. It was a sow with two half grown cubs. Brian said they were probably three years old or so, and would be leaving her in a year. We all behaved and didn't talk, other than quiet whispers. We watched them for quite a while, taking many photos. The bears shuffled around the meadow, constantly eating. I was so incredibly happy, I was very close to tears. I felt like it was one of my very top travel days ever. We finally tore ourselves away and moved on. I felt like if I never saw another thing on the trip, I would be happy.

We stopped at the Eieslen Visitor Center and walked around for about a half hour. We were delighted to get reasonable views of Denali itself, making us part of the 30% club. Only 30% of the people who visit Denali National Park actually get to see the mountain. We were pretty sure we had seen it the day we visited earlier, but this nailed it. I photographed some wildflowers. An Arctic Ground-squirrel looked at us with begging eyes, but we resisted giving him something to eat. Some of the passengers chose to stay and do some hiking. Some new passengers got on to return to the bus depot. The bus was still empty enough that we each had our own seat. Now I really felt guilty. :-D Martin and I had talked that maybe we would see more animals going back, as there was less traffic and it was later in the day.

We quickly got to the spot where the bears had been and they were still there! We took a lot more photographs. How can you not? Shortly after we saw another Caribou, this one as tattered looking as the first one, but, holy cats, did he have a nice set of antlers! As we came around a bend, a Red Fox was trotting along the side of the road. When I say Red Fox, I mean the species. He was far from red. There are many variations on the coat color. This one was browner, with black legs. He walked along side of the bus for a while, then crossed in front of us and disappeared.
One of the passengers sitting directly behind me called out "Moose!" There was a young bull, buried in the willows, with only part of his head and antlers visable. I commented, "Good spotting!" to her, and she said they were from Alaska and saw Moose all the time, so she was keyed in on them. We paused and took a number of photos. He seemed blissfully unaware of us. Then Brian called out, "LYNX!!! On the road!" I looked up and saw the cat running across. I gasped and then did what I sometimes do when extremely excited, I dropped the F bomb, rather loudly. Lynx was one of my most wanted mammals, only after Wolverine, which is almost impossible, and Wolf. I never expected to see one. I was a bit embarrassed by my outburst, and leaned up and apologized to the young couple in front of me. He turned and said "Are you kidding? That was hilarious!" At the end of the trip, I also apologized to Brian and he said "That is absolutely the proper response to seeing a lynx!' The very bad news was, Martin missed it. He thought it was right in front of the bus and didn't look up. I felt really badly for him, but he handled it really well.

Brian said we were running a bit behind, so we had to press on to try and get back by 8PM. We spotted six Dall's Sheep up very high on a mountain. We got to the Gyrfalcon aerie again. There was still no Gyrfalcon, but the cooperative Dall's Sheep was still there. We took a few more photos. As we drove on this stretch of the road, Brian pointed out areas where the ground was slipping down. He said that the permafrost was melting, so the ground was shifting. The area of the road we were driving on was losing the edge and would not be able to be driven in the not too distant future. A geologist was working on the problem, but there was still no solution. He said the permafrost would all be gone in the park by the year 2050. This was extremely sobering. I also wanted to say "Drive faster!" as we were on a very narrow stretch of road with a high drop off.

We picked up a few passengers, but none of them wanted my seat. I quit feeling guilty. We made our last rest stop and Brian suggested that if we wanted to, to walk ahead on the road and he would pick us up. I was debating whether to walk, or be lazy. I heard a high pitched wheezing sound, and thought "Waxwings!", though when I hear waxwings here the sound is more constant. Brian asked me if I knew what the call was. I said "Waxings?" rather tentatively and he said "Yes!" One flew onto the top of a spruce and I got a distant photo.

We got back to the bus depot near the park entrance at about 815PM, only a little late. I wish I could express just how amazing this bus trip was. We ended up with 9 species of mammals, Snow-shoe Hare, Arctic Ground-squirrel, Red Squirrel, Caribou, Moose, Dall's Sheep, Red Fox, Grizzly Bear, and Canadian Lynx. We didn't have a big number of birds or butterflies, but who cares? I would highly recommend doing this trip. I hope you are lucky enough to get a driver as good as Brian was. This will stay with me for the rest of my life!

I only have one album for the day, the mammals. I am sorry I don't have one of the lynx. -

Bird list for the day:
Willow Ptarmigan
Golden Eagle
Northern Shrike
Canada Shrike
Black-billed Magpie
Bohemian Waxwing
White-crowned Sparrow.

The farthest north I have ever been!

I checked the weather when we got up. It was perfect for butterflies, mostly sunny and low wind speeds. I looked outside and there was a pall of smoke over everything, due to the wildfire we had heard about near Murphy Dome, which was still burning, but where we were going was over a 100 miles northeast, up the Steese Highway, again. We stopped at a nearby grocery for lunch stuff and took off.

I had been wanting to do a bit more birding, and Martin still needed to see a Spruce Grouse, so we made a couple of stops. There was a promising looking road about twenty miles up the highway, with some woods, where we thought we might see the grouse. We had no luck with that, but did have several Varied Thrushes. Their song sends chills down my spine! There was a little boggy pond at the end of the road, where we heard a Boreal Owl calling. It was in an area where we couldn't see it, but we were still happy.

We drove a bit further on and noticed some birds at a puddle off the side of the road. We turned around and were delighted to find a male Pine Grosbeak and several White-winged Crossbills, neither of which we had seen on this trip. There were a few butterflies on the west mud, including a couple of Cranberry Blues, a species I thought was going to be hard to see before the trip, but had been almost common. We found another bog nearby, which Martin wanted to check for dragonflies. He didn't find the type he was looking for, but we found Dorcas Coppers, a new butterfly for both of us.

We saw a pond on the side of the road that looked promising for one of the dragonflies he hoped to find, Canadian Whiteface. There was a nice wooded area next to it with a little trail, so I could do some birding. I like dragonflies, but I always seem to be in the wrong place, and move too clumsily, and flush them, so I usually find something else to do while Martin looks. I was happy to see a few birds, nothing rare. Martin came back with a huge grin on his face, showing me his camera. He had found his target.

As we drove, we saw a shape on the side of the road. We slowed down, not wanting to flush what ever it was. As we crept closer we could see it was a Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird. I almost squealed when two little fuzz balls emerged from the roadside vegetation, very young chicks. We kept back to make sure we didn't upset them. They seemed completely comfortable with the distance. We watched as they poked around. Finally, they crossed the road, one at a time and disappeared.

We pressed on to the area we had been to two days prior. We had not worked the 12 mile Summit area much, so we decided to give it a go first. There was a "trail" that consisted of single boards laid end to end up the hill. I started up it and flushed an arctic, a type of butterfly. It finally landed again on the board and we got a few photos. Unfortunately, the exposure on my photos sucked. Then it took off and landed on Martin's jeans, where I got a great shot. We puzzled over the ID, but it turned out to be a Jutta Arctic, which we had seen earlier in the trip.

We proceeded farther up the road to the place where we had seen the Evermann's Parnassian. We hoped to see a female, or at least a less worn male. We were rewarded with a gorgeous male, almost glistening he was so fresh. He was very cooperative, even providing some under-wing shots. There were a good number of confusing fritillaries and sulphurs, which I am still trying to work out. The weather and the views were incredible. We were extremely happy with our decision to revisit the area.

We stopped at Eagle Summit briefly, but decided to go on, to see what habitat was down the road, and if it looked interesting, to drive on to Central, the next settlement on the highway. We went a couple of miles and saw that the road quickly dropped back into spruces and thought we would do better to turn around and look for some rocky habitat on the side of road, as there are a few butterflies that prefer that. As we turned around I realized this was the farthest north I had ever been, less than 100 miles from the arctic circle.

Not far back we found exactly the type of place Martin was looking for. On one side of the road was a rocky cut going up, on the other were rocks extending down the hill. Our hope was butterflies flying from one area of rocks to the other might stop and allow us to photograph them. We did see quite a few, but almost all kept sailing right on by. I heard an odd call, one that didn't sound quite bird like.It turned about to be a Collared Pika, a chunky little mammal that lives in rocks and loves to call. They look like big rodents, but are actually related to rabbits. I had seen American Pikas in Washington state and Colorado, but this was a different species.  Martin called out and pointed down the road where a Northern Wheatear was perched on a post. This bird is most commonly found in the "old world", but some do summer in Alaska and Canada. A second one was calling up the rock face. Martin was particularly happy, as this was his "spark" bird that got him started birding back in England.

We started back to Fairbanks, looking for more rocky spots to explore. We saw a bird sitting in the middle of the road. We expected another Willow Ptarmigan. Again, we slowed down to a crawl. The light was a little harsh, but we could finally make out details as we got closer. There was barring. It was not a ptarmigan at all, but a female Spruce Grouse, the bird Martin really wanted to see. I had seen a few in Washington state years before, but despite searching for them several times in the past, it had eluded Martin. This is a bird that we expected to get in the forest, which is where I had seen mine. This one was out in the open, in an area where there were only scattered spruce in the fields on either side. It capped off the day for both of us!

Bird photos for this day:

Butterfly photos for this day:

Wildflower photos for this day:

Birds seen this day:
Northern Shoveler
Spruce Grouse
Willow Ptarmigan
Solitary Sandpiper
Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan's)
Boreal Owl
Alder Flycatcher
Hammond's Flycatcher
Canada Jay
Common Raven
Tree Swallow
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Northern Wheatear
Varied Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
American Robin
Pine Grosbeak
White-winged Crossbill
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Wilson Warbler

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Is that it? I'm not sure, maybe. June 25, 2019.

We weren't quite sure where we wanted to go when we got up in this morning. I suggested driving down towards Denali National Park, not thinking we would actually go that far. I had seen a couple of eBird lists that looked interesting, and there was the possibility of some different butterflies. Not far outside of Fairbanks we passed Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn, and snorted like two 12 year olds. Thank goodness we still have our adolescent mindsets.

Alaska highway 3 runs along the top of a ridge south of Fairbanks, giving beautiful views on either side of the road. We pulled into a rest stop not far from Nenana and as soon as I got out of the car I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling. There was also an Alder Flycatcher and some Black-capped Chickadees. An Arctic White Butterfly skimmed by and then lit on some flowers. We also found a Western Tailed-Blue, a tiny bug, but still beautiful. There was a side road just past the rest area, so we decided to go down it and see what else we could find in the woods. The first bird I saw a Canada Jay, which had been called Gray Jay in the past. This was the first spot where the mosquitoes were a bit of a problem, but still not horrible. We drove a bit further down, but then spotted a guy on a bicycle laying a log across the road up ahead of us. He looked a little shady, like maybe he had a meth lab in his trailer, so we turned around.

We crossed a "braided" river by Nenana, which was flowing fast with muddy looking water. Braided rivers are fed by glaciers. I always thought of glacial water being clear and pure, but it's not. Glaciers pick up a lot of dirt and debris as they move, so that is mixed in with the melt. So, when you see bottled water claiming to be from glaciers, unless it's thick and brown, something has been done to it! We decided to press on to Healy, which is not far from the northern edge of Denali National Park. I found one of the roads where I had seen some birds reported.

We drove down the road and didn't see much for the first mile or so. Then we found a power-line cut, which can be great for butterflies. We pulled off and almost immediately a utility truck pulled in on the other side of the road. Martin talked to the two workers, who were really nice. They told us to go ahead and walk there, they wouldn't be doing anything on the side we were one for a couple of hours. One of the guys told us which gas station was best in Healy and where we might get a peak at Denali. We walked around for about an hour and did find quite a few bugs, but most of them were "patrolling" and not stopping to feed. We decided to head further south towards the national park.

We stopped and picked up some food at a grocery store and talked to the clerk. We asked her about a location on the map called McKinley Park, which we thought was a park. It is not, it is actually a small town right by the entrance to Denali. She went on and on about this great strip mall to do some shopping down there. We decided, what the hell, we would go into the park and maybe stop to buy some trinkets at the shopping center. On the drive down we passed a couple of pull outs, where we checked for butterflies and saw a few.

Denali National Park has limited access. You can drive in about 15 miles to one of the camp grounds; past that you either have to take a permitted bus. We stopped at the bus station right after we entered to see what was involved. We parked and several people were getting out of a car next to us. They explained the bus trips were at least eight hours, or longer, depending on which location you went to, four hours in and four hours out. The tickets were about $45 each, plus park admission,  Most people purchase them in advance, so there was no guarantee we could even get on a bus that day. It was about 1PM, so even if we got on the next bus we wouldn't get out of the park until 9PM. We decided to not do it, and just drive in as far as we could.

We drove down towards the camp ground, making some stops along the way. There was an overlook where you can sometimes see Denali. We were not sure which way to look, but asked a ranger, who gave us vague directions. The mountain is 72 miles away, so unless it is pretty clear, there isn't much chance of seeing it. We could see some mountains, but nothing looked like what we expected. To be honest the road was nothing like I expected. In my head, I had always thought it was straight and through a flat boggy area with some spruce. I have no idea why I though this. The road is actually a  bit twisty and there is some nice forest. We got to the camp ground, got out and looked for butterflies for a bit. We had hoped that we might see a bear or moose, but we didn't. The only mammal we found was a brazen Arctic Ground Squirrel, who looked fearless.

We turned around and headed slowly back to the entrance. We saw some more Canada Jays, and just enjoyed the park. We stopped at the overlook again and this time we were successful! At least we think we were. We could just make out a big mountain beak through the clouds. It came and went. I was really excited, even if it was not the best view. Only 31% of the people who visit the park actually see the mountain. Martin had seen it well on one of his work trips to Alaska, so it wasn't as big a deal to him, but he was still happy to get a glimpse.

It was going to be a long ride back to Fairbanks, so we left the park. At least with the very, very long days, we didn't have to worry about driving back in the dark. It is about a two hour drive, so it wasn't awful. I will be honest, I don't remember much about the drive back, except when we crossed the Alaska. I was a little bemused, as Denali seems well within the interior. By the way, if the picture I posted is not Denali, that is cool. There is more on this later.

Bird photos for the day-

Butterfly photos for the day-

Wildflower photos for the day-

Bird list for the day:
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Yellowlegs
Mew Gull
Belted Kingfisher
Alder Flycatcher
Canada Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Gray-cheeked Thrush
American Robin
Chipping Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Queen of Poisons, Alaska, Jun.24, 2019.

I laughingly named my blog "I hate paramo," because when we first birded Ecuador that habitat was cold and wet, and it was quite a slog to walk around. I also had a bout of altitude sickness. Paramo is looks quite similar to tundra, above the tree line, with stunted shrubs and plants. There were a few of differences, though, in walking the tundra in Alaska. First, it wasn't cold and rainy, second the altitude was much lower, 3,000 ft. as compared to 13,000 ft. Lastly, it was a little difficult to walk in some places, but not nearly as soggy.

We came to Alaska to mainly look for butterflies. There are a number of species that have restricted ranges in the north and use the tundra. I was also intrigued by the wildflowers of the tundra. There are even a few good birds found in this habitat. Our main butterfly target was Eversmann's Parnassian. Parnassians are usually found in mountain habitat and are white with some black markings and red spots. Eversmann's is the only one that is yellow. It also is in an area not covered by most people. Martin had really wanted to see this species ever since he started butterflying. I really wanted, to, also.

We started the day going up to Murphy Dome, near Fairbanks, where another couple of species were supposed to be found. We were a bit surprised when we got to the top and there were dozens of people milling around. It turned out there was a wildfire nearby. We asked if we could look around for butterflies and they said sure, just stay out of the way. Martin was also surprised by the vegetation. In Google Maps photos it had appeared very low and more grassy. It was now waist to head high willow and not really walk-able. He asked one of the fire fighters about it and he told us that the photos had probably been taken a couple of years prior and that tundra can change very rapidly. We did poke around for a bit, but we were not seeing what we expected. We could see the smoke from the fire a couple of miles away and decided to go a different direction.

The Steese Highway runs northeast of Fairbanks. Highway really isn't the best description of this road, at least 80 miles or so along it. It turns to an unpaved road at this point, though it was not bad at all. We had a couple of spots marked for the parnassian, one called 12 Mile Summit, about 86 miles from where the highway starts, and Eagle Summit, about 106 miles in. The weather was a bit cloudy and became very windy, the farther we went, so it wasn't ideal for butterflies. We didn't dawdle much, heading up. The lower part of the highway passes through fairly open spruce forest. We did pause at a pond, where a beaver was swimming around, giving us good looks. We arrived at 12 Mile Summit and did a little walking, but not much was flying.  We decided to move up to Eagle Summit.

Martin had looked at Eagle Summit on Google Maps. He said there was a small building and a parking area. We drove up about as far as we thought it was and spotted a parking area. Who knows what had happened to the building? We  got out and walked up to the tundra from the parking area and got jaw-dropping looks at a Rock Ptarmigan, strolling by. I took a bunch of photos and little video. It finally scooted into the willows. I had seen the one in flight the day before, but this was much better! Martin went farther in, and I poked around the parking lot a little, since it was wet and I was hoping for "puddling" bugs. I found a hoof print of a caribou and a piece of fur in the willows. Unfortunately, I didn't see the actual caribou. I photographed a few flowers.

The sun was in and out and the wind was howling. It was far from ideal conditions. We saw a few frittilaries, which can be brutally difficult to identify, some sulphurs and alpines. Martin crossed the road to an area that was a bit more sheltered from the wind. I crossed over, too. He said, "If you see the parnassian, put your arms up like this!" I was picturing myself falling down the side of the hill with my arms up over my head, frantically waving as I tumbled down." I found my favorite flower of the trip, Monkshood, also known as Queen of Poisons, which is a way better name! I mean, seriously! If you eat this flower you can die within two to five hours. I love the drama, which is why I am calling this post Queen of Poisons. It sounds like we were in Game of Thrones!

I looked down the hill and saw a pale yellow butterfly flying low to ground, right past Martin. It landed briefly and he shouted "It's the parnassian!" He did not raise his arms over his head, but I forgave him, since he shouted. I got over as quickly as I could and got some photos. It was a male, slightly worn, but we were ecstatic. My experience with other species of parnassians is they rarely land. This one flew, and then landed, flew and landed, over and over again. I think the wind was actually working in our favor. We saw a few more butterflies and decided to drive up the highway a bit farther.

We got in the car, and started driving. We quickly realized we had not been at Eagle Summit at all. We saw a sign and the little building Martin had seen on Google Maps. We stopped and walked around a bit. We didn't see much as far as butterflies, but a Common Redpoll was sitting up singing. We decided to return to the place that wasn't Eagle Summit and quickly saw another parnassian. We got a few more bugs and started to head back, figuring we could see some other bugs and birds in different habitat.

We were about fifty miles out of Fairbanks when the low tire light came on. This is not what you want on a deserted highway with no gas stations for at least 45 miles. Martin got out and checked and thought the rear left tire looked a little squishy, but not bad. We drove on and he checked again in about another ten miles. He said it definitely looked a little low. Of course there was no cell service. We kept on, checking the tire from time to time. Of course the first gas station didn't have a tire gage or air. We called the car rental company and they said to bring it in. If the tire was not fixable, we would be responsible. We finally came to a station and Martin put air in the tire. It still wasn't flat. We got to the airport and Dollar car rental gave us a new car. We called them a couple of days later, and it looks like the tire was fixable, so we weren't stuck with it. A good ending to the day!
Links to photos:
Butterflies of the day (please feel free to comment on my IDs.)-

Birds of the day_

Wildflowers of the day (again, please feel free to comment.) -

Bird species seen:
Ring-necked Duck
Sandhill Crane
Alder Flycatcher
Violet-green Swallow
American Robin
American Pipit
Common Redpoll
White-crowned Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow